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Bats are very intriguing creatures and although their nocturnal habits mean that we tend to see less of them than other wildlife, they are an important part of the ecosystem. Sadly, they are increasingly rare despite being protected by law in the UK. Here are tips on how to help provide a bat-friendly environment in your garden and some fascinating facts about bats.
Bats are distinguished from other mammals by their ability to fly. Their wings have a bone structure that resembles webbed fingers and a thumb, and have flexible joints and tips that allows for swift and agile movement. The hind feet are large and clawed, which allows them to hang upside down while at rest.
The UK has 18 species of bat, which are all protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. They feed on insects that are usually caught and eaten in mid air. It is commonly believed that bats are blind, but in fact most bats have reasonable eyesight.
Despite this, they hunt and navigate by a system known as ‘echolocation.’ This involves emitting high pitched sounds that are almost undetectable to the human ear. The returning echoes from these sounds help them to detect the location of prey and to navigate around obstacles.
Unlike most mammals, bats do not build nests, but they will choose a variety of locations to roost throughout the year. Bats will sometimes roost in caves, hollow trees, or attic spaces. The mating season occurs during the late autumn and early winter before hibernation, but fertilisation does not occur until the warmer weather in the spring.
Why are bats a threatened species?
Bats have declined in huge numbers over the past century, for a variety of reasons including habitat loss, pollution, disease, and deliberate extermination by humans. The hedgerows, ponds and woodlands that form much of their natural habitat have decreased significantly.
Bats are insectivores, but intensive farming methods with increased use of pesticides have resulted in lower insect numbers and so they have fewer food sources.
Bats often roost in the eves of old buildings and these colonies can be destroyed during redevelopment work.
Bats have very few natural predators in the UK, although they will be eaten by owls and other birds of prey such as sparrowhawks. However, some domestic cats will unfortunately hunt and kill or injure bats. Bats that have been bitten by cats often die from bacterial infections.
The Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) recommends keeping cats indoors at night, or at least for the first hour before dawn and dusk. This is most important during the summer when bats are raising their young. If keeping your cat in at night is not practicable, then a collar and bell can help to alert wildlife to its presence.
Artificial lighting is another major threat to bats, because it discourages them from emerging from roosts and impacts on their foraging and feeding behaviour. Night lighting also makes bats more vulnerable to birds of prey, which is partly why they have evolved to avoid daylight.
How can you create a bat-friendly environment?
It may seem to be insignificant, but small changes that we make really can add up to make a difference overall. If you have a pond or a bog garden, this is a great place to start. Ponds attract insects, particularly tiny flies that start life as aquatic larvae and are especially favoured by bats as a food source. Bats will also drink from ponds or other water features.
Avoid putting fish in your pond, because they will eat the insect larvae. Plant native flowering species around the margins of your pond, as these will attract insects and therefore bats. Marsh marigold and creeping jenny are excellent marginal plants that will thrive in most conditions.
If you have a bog garden or even an area of boggy ground, you can plant bog bean, Hemp agrimony, Meadowsweet, water avens, or purple loosestrife among other species.
When choosing plants for the rest of your garden, aim to have a good variety of native flowering plants, trees, vegetables, and shrubs that bloom during different times of the year, as these will attract a wide range of insects.
Trees may also provide a place for bats to roost and will also be another source of shelter and food for insects. Avoid using pesticides as these not only kill pests but also insects that benefit your garden, and also reduce the amount of prey for bats. Minimise your garden lighting as bats are very sensitive to light.
Leave some areas of your garden deliberately untended so that insects can shelter and hibernate. Log piles and compost heaps also make ideal habitats for invertebrates.
You may even want to install a bat box to create a roosting habitat. These should be well insulated with a rough texture that is not treated with chemicals. The entrance should be wide enough to provide access to bats, but not large enough to admit predators such as cats or birds of prey.
The box should be installed close to a hedge or tree line in a sheltered area that is at least four or five metres above the ground. Remember that it may take several years for bats to colonise the box. The box must be well sealed with no lid. It is important to remember that once you have installed the box, it cannot be legally opened without a licence.
The species of bat you are most likely to spot in your garden is the pipistrelle. They are small with a wingspan of no more than 20cm and have a brown furry body with a black face and wings. A bat detector can be used to help you pick up the bats’ high pitched calls and help you spot more elusive species such as the brown long-eared bat that tends to lurk in trees.