The days are getting longer, daffodils are blooming out in the garden and I’ve been marvelling at the queen bees that are noisily buzzing around the crocuses. At dawn and dusk, the blackbird’s melodic song right outside my window is a powerful reminder that, for nature, spring is very much here.
As we say goodbye to winter, we can start to say hello to many of the creatures that spent the long, cold days hibernating. For those lucky to have a neighbourhood hedgehog, the familiar snuffles of this much-loved prickly visitor should once more sound on a spring evening. Maybe you’ve glimpsed a large yellow butterfly, known as the brimstone, on a sunny early spring day. But what about bats? We know they hibernate over winter but what do they get up to in spring and when can we expect to see them?
The UK is home to an impressive 18 species of bats, of which 17 species are known to breed here. They make up almost a quarter of all UK mammal species but they remain elusive night-time creatures for many. So, let’s uncover a bit more about these fascinating, and miniscule mammals.
Grey long-eared bat leaving barn roost – Neil Aldridge (Back from the Brink)
Is that a bat?
Bats begin to wake from hibernation in March and April. As you can imagine, after spending the winter tucked up somewhere quiet, such as in an old tree or a disused building, bats will be hungry and thirsty when they stir from their winter slumber.
They’ll be on the lookout for insects to fill their bellies and a source of water to swoop down and drink from. At this time of year, these usually night-dwelling creatures may actually be seen during the daytime as they search for nourishment. Keep an eye out – you never know, that brown creature that just swept past could well be a tiny bat on the hunt for some tasty insects.
Bats will use spring to feed up and build up condition ready for the females to give birth later in the summer. But sadly some bats struggle after their long hibernation period and it’s possible you might come across a weak bat on the ground. If this happens, the best course of action is to call the Bat Conservation Trust’s National Bat Helpline who can advise on what to do, and if necessary put you in touch with a bat carer.
What bats am I likely to see?
Our most common species’ are the common and soprano pipistrelles.
If you sometimes see bats flying low over your garden or nearest greenspace then they could well be pipistrelles as these bats fly relatively low in the sky. Incredibly, these tiny bats (they weigh about the same as a 20 p piece!) were only identified as two separate species in 1999. They look very similar but the best way to tell them apart is by listening to their calls using a bat detector.
Bat calls are usually at too high a frequency for humans to hear, but a bat detector is able to convert the calls to a lower frequency that humans can pick up. Different bat species have different call frequencies and patterns and by using a detector we can tell them apart.
Another bat you may have come across is the noctule. This is one of the UK’s biggest bats, but it’s still really small…it could fit into the palm of your hand! Again, you may see noctules in parks or gardens. The trick is to look right up into the sky just around sunset – these bats fly high and tend to come out quite early in the evening compared to other species.
The further north you go, the fewer bat species you are likely to encounter. The south of England is home to several much rarer species and even some species of bats that migrate. Serotine bats as well as Nathusius pipistrelles are known to make migratory journeys, much like we see in birds. An astonishing feat for such tiny creatures.
Grey long-eared bat – Neil Aldridge (Back from the Brink)
Bringing a special bat back from the brink
One of our rarest bat species is the grey long-eared bat. It is found in southern England, where it forages for insect food over meadows, grasslands and gardens. This little grey bat has remarkably long ears, almost as long as its body! What’s equally extraordinary is that it can curl its ears up or tuck them completely under its wings.
There could be as few as just 1,000 grey long-eared bats in the UK, with numbers continuing to decline. Many of the grassland habitats that this little bat feeds over have been lost and the landscape that it lives in has been fragmented.
Fortunately, Back from the Brink, an ambitious collaborative project by a host of conservation partners including the RSPB, is doing all it can to help save the grey long-eared bat and a further 19 other threatened species in England from extinction.
The grey long-eared bat project is led by the Bat Conservation Trust and is working with landowners to find ways to safeguard remaining grassland habitats for this special bat, as well as looking at ways to join up habitats to create a safe landscape for the species. Inspiring people to provide the species with foraging and roosting habitats is essential.
Grey long-eared bat over grassland – Neil Aldridge (Back from the Brink)
As Craig Dunton, Grey long-eared Bat Project Officer explains, ensuring we can create safe landscapes for this special bat is of increasing importance: “The grey long-eared bat is not only threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. As the climate changes, the conditions in the bat’s stronghold (in Spain and Portugal) are likely to become more harsh and unsuitable – driving populations further north (where the lack of physical barriers permit). This means that suitable foraging habitats (primarily wildflower meadows) at the northern- most edge of the range, including England, are absolutely vital for this species to thrive.”
To find out more, visit https://naturebftb.co.uk/the-projects/grey-long-eared-bat/
Be on the lookout
Remember, if you’re out and about one spring evening, do look and listen out for bats. They might be a little less obvious than the birds you see in your garden or at the local park, but they’re nonetheless remarkable. I for one can’t wait to see their darting silhouettes over my garden as they hoover up midges and other flying critters.
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