Battling the skies (geddit?)

The plaintive tale of Britain’s last remaining greater mouse-eared bat, as told by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian last year, is one that will tug on even the most resistant of heart strings.

Every winter for the last 16 or so years, this solitary male has returned to the same dank railway tunnel in West Sussex to sleep out the winter. Nobody knows where it goes each spring and it has never been seen in flight.

Thought to be the only one of its kind in this country, the future of the species – in Britain at least – rests heavily on the wings of this lone individual. No pressure there then!

What do you call a bat baby?

On a dusk walk with the Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT) last week, I picked up all sorts of bat-related trivia from bat rescuer Ryan. That a baby bat for example is, very sweetly, called a pup.

That a bat’s wings are made from the same bones as our hands, hence its taxonomic classification chiroptera from the Greek words for hand and wing. That it’s the only mammal that can truly fly, and that one in four mammal species is a bat.

Despite their bad press, bats globally perform several key roles. They help control insect numbers which in turn helps control disease vectors. Over 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including types of mango and banana.

Their part in seed dispersal assists with the regeneration of rain forests. And the saliva of the much maligned vampire bat contains an anticoagulant which, when modified, has been used in a drug for stroke patients just after they have suffered an attack.

Speedsters, hobbits and acrobats

Ryan, it turned out, had a pithily accurate description of the bats we were most likely to see on our trundle round Woods Mill Nature Reserve. From the silvery stomached Daubenton bat with its big hairy hobbit-like feet to the speedster noctule bat to the acrobatic pipistrelle (common and soprano).

He was no less expressive when detailing how each would reverberate at different frequencies on the bat detector. The noctule makes a “chip choppy sound”, the Daubenton that of a mini machine gun, and the Pipistrelle resembles bubbles popping.

I’m not convinced by Ryan’s labelling of the brown long-eared bat as our cutest – the slighter more skittish pipistrelle which weighs about the same as a two pence coin and can catch as many as 3000 insects a night – won me over. But other than that, the SWT batman was spot on!

Photo by Miriam Fischer on

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