Friday 6 July 2012

It's Just Not Summer Without Bats

BCT's Heather McFarlane laments the bad weather and praises the volunteers and staff who are trying to make sure that despite the clouds there is a silver lining for bats.

2012 is no ordinary year and as far as the weather goes it seems pretty strange. We had a heat wave in March, a drought in the South East, floods in Wales and Northern England and the wettest April and June on record. While this wet and windy weather has been interrupting Wimbledon, dampening national celebrations and washing out back garden barbeques, what I have missed most of all is our bats. I haven’t really seen any and it just doesn’t feel like summer without those fast moving shadows darting across the skies as sunset.

Bat Above my Garden, by Richard Carter. Licensed through Creative Commons.

I am not the only one to notice that it has been a somewhat bat-less summer. Recently I was in Birmingham promoting bat-friendly gardening and hundreds of people told me they hadn’t seen their bats this year either.

Could it be the weather?

I was asked what was behind the “bat-less summer” and in truth we just can’t say for sure. We know bats face long standing environmental pressures, and our bat populations are thought to have declined by 70% in the 20th Century. But recently here at BCT we have also seen unusual activity on our Bat Helpline. Just a few months ago the phones were ringing off the hook with reports of grounded bats. There was a 50% increase in calls in May about bats that had ended up on the ground unable to fly away. It looks like many bats emerged from hibernation only to for the inhospitable, cold, wet and windy weather to return.

Pipistrelle by Dave. Licensed through Creative Commons.

Being a bat is energy intensive. You are small, you have to fly to catch up to 3000 insects a night, and you face a nightly struggle to find roosts, safe commuting routes and hunting grounds. Poor weather means that there are fewer insects around for you to eat and makes hunting more difficult. If you don’t get enough food then, just like a human, you can become weak and get exhausted. When bats get too weak to fly, they can end up stuck on the ground, exposed and vulnerable.

Luckily, thanks to the work of Bat Helpline Officers, volunteer bat carers and concerned members of the public, many grounded bats can be saved. My colleagues give advice on how to safely move bats to safer places using gloves, tea towels and shoeboxes. They can help callers keep a bat in a safe container, with a bit of water in a bottle top for it to drink. In more serious cases a volunteer bat carer will often be needed. Trained in how to care for these tiny creatures bat carers can often rehabilitate bats before releasing them back into the wild.

Rescued Bat and Suckling Baby Bat by Steven Allen. Used with permission.

But by early July, the Bat Helpline phones should be ringing with different calls. By now, the Bat Helpline is usually busy with home owners reporting maternity roosts or people who’ve found a baby bat taking a wrong turn and ending up in the bathroom! But this year it looks like many maternity roosts have remained empty and abandoned with no mothers returning and no baby bats being born in there. Our first baby bat call arrived nearly a month late and we only had about 20 calls about baby bats by the end of June. These few babies will be in for a tough time because they only have a few weeks to feed up before autumn and hibernation. If the weather doesn’t improve for bats, bat mothers will have fewer nights to hunt, there will be fewer insects to catch and little time for the young bats to learn how to fly and hunt for themselves. We may well have some more exhausted bats later in the season.

But we don’t know yet if this summer’s weather is behind the reports of empty roosts and grounded bats, or whether it will have long lasting consequences for our bat populations. However, thanks to the National Bat Monitoring Programme volunteers we will find out. Volunteers are out scanning the skies and counting bats going in and coming out of roosts so that we can build up a picture of how bat populations are faring and what’s affecting them.

Hedgerow in Suffolk by Tom Need. Licensed through Creative Commons.

Like many people who haven’t seen bats this year, I feel like a part of summer is missing and I don’t know when it will come back. But in the meantime here at BCT we hope our bat walks aren’t washed out, and we continue to work for bat friendly practices in woodlands, cities and rural areas. We’re also grateful that volunteer bat groups and roost visitors all over the country are working tirelessly to ensure their patch is the best it can be for bats and that bat carers are on hand to help grounded and injured bats. And while it is not easy to sleep at night knowing the skies are empty outside my window, I know when summer does arrive we’ll have made Britain better for bats and for all of us too.

Do your bit for bats - support the Bat Helpline today!

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