Wel­come to the bat cave

In deep­est Devon sick and or­phaned bats are given a sec­ond chance at life. Ben Hoare meets a wildlife hero.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Bat Rescue - Pho­tos by Nick Up­ton

South of Ex­moor, I turn off a busy A road and stop by the house I’ve heard called the ‘Batty Ford Clinic’. From out­side it looks like any other in the vil­lage. Sa­man­tha Pick­er­ing opens the front door hold­ing her three-weekold daugh­ter – adorable in a bat-themed Baby­gro – and ush­ers me into the liv­ing room while fend­ing off a friendly Rhode­sian ridge­back. I spot a tub of meal­worms, a pipette and med­i­cal in­spec­tion gloves. In one cor­ner is a cot full of bat toys, in an­other an in­cu­ba­tor. “For my other ba­bies,” laughs Sam.

“Right now I have three pip­istrelles in the in­cu­ba­tor,” she says. “One is five weeks old, the oth­ers around four weeks. Baby ‘pips’ need feed­ing ev­ery cou­ple of hours, so bat res­cuers set an alarm for the night-time feeds, though this year my own baby does it for me!”

Back in July, when Sam first told me that she had just given birth, I sug­gested post­pon­ing my visit, but she would have none of it. “Don’t be silly,” she in­sisted. Sam has her hands full and likes it that way. As well as al­ter­nately feed­ing hun­gry bats and her own in­fant day and night, she has four teenagers to think of. In the back gar­den there are nu­mer­ous older bats of vary­ing species and ages in a pur­pose-built shel­ter and flight cage – one of the coun­try’s largest bat-res­cue fa­cil­i­ties. And the house­hold also in­cludes a hus­band, two cats, two rab­bits, two guinea pigs, five chin­chillas, a tame jack­daw (it comes and goes as it pleases), that im­pres­sive species of Aus­tralian lizard, the bearded dragon, and an African pygmy hedge­hog.

“They are mainly res­cue an­i­mals,” says Sam, whose fas­ci­na­tion for bats be­gan when she was six. “Peo­ple hear that I love bats and as word spreads bring all kinds of other crea­tures that need re­hom­ing.” Most of the bats in Sam’s ex­pert care come straight from the wild, but last Oc­to­ber she was asked if she would take 40 Egyp­tian fruit bats from a col­lec­tion no longer able to keep them. “Sadly, I didn’t have room – fruit bats need lots of space. But af­ter a flurry of emails among bat­work­ers, we found a zoo that did.”

BATTY ABOUT BATS

Sam has min­is­tered to most of Bri­tain’s 18 species – South­west Eng­land is a bat hotspot – since open­ing her sanc­tu­ary in 2013, a year af­ter train­ing as a vol­un­tary bat carer with the Devon Bat Group. June and July, when bats give birth, is her busiest time. Au­tumn is also hec­tic, as many young­sters on the wing for the first time get into trou­ble, ei­ther crash-land­ing or mis­judg­ing aerial ma­noeu­vres.

Adult males – “hor­monal dads” Sam calls them – are also of­ten in­jured dur­ing the au­tumn breed­ing sea­son ( fe­males give birth the fol­low­ing sum­mer). “With their minds on one thing, amorous males make so much noise they at­tract preda­tors,” she says. “Do­mes­tic cats are a real men­ace and ac­count for 70 per cent of the ca­su­al­ties I see.”

Other dan­gers in­clude un­cov­ered wa­ter tanks in lofts and col­li­sions with sticky fly­pa­per. And bats suf­fer from un­scrupu­lous or care­less build­ing work, de­spite the fact that all bat roosts in Bri­tain are strictly pro­tected – it’s a crim­i­nal of­fence to dis­turb roosts, even if the bats are away.

TEN­DER LOV­ING CARE

In sum­mer, mean­while, nurs­ing ba­bies may be­come sep­a­rated from their moth­ers and risk be­ing grounded. “In the first week of its life, a baby bat will usu­ally sur­vive a fall, be­cause its mum can still pick it up off the floor and fly away with it,” ex­plains Sam. “But if you ever see a pink bat with­out its mum, some­thing’s se­ri­ously wrong.”

Luck­ily, with a lit­tle ‘TLC’ the tee­ni­est scraps of skin, bone and fur can be saved. If a bat sur­vives its crit­i­cal first two days in Sam’s sanc­tu­ary, it has over an 80 per cent chance of re­cov­er­ing to be re­leased back into the wild.

The Brin­sea in­cu­ba­tor, de­signed for rear­ing poul­try, is new. It was paid for by the picture agency rep­re­sent­ing Nick Up­ton, a reg­u­lar BBC Wildlife con­trib­u­tor whose

pho­to­graphs il­lus­trate this ar­ti­cle. “It’s trans­formed what I can do,” Sam says. She fin­ishes feed­ing her new­born, pulls on a pair of cot­ton gloves, then oh-so-gently lifts out a mi­nus­cule bat. “This is a com­mon pip­istrelle. You can tell by its dark ban­dit mask and black ‘tights’. So­prano pip­istrelles have tawny fur and a paler face.”

MEAL TIME

Pick­ing up a meal­worm, Sam squeezes it to force out the in­nards, like tooth­paste from a tube, and prof­fers it. The bat half nib­bles, half sucks its gooey meal, re­veal­ing nee­dle-like teeth. Sam holds up an­other grub, then fondly y gives the baby a drin nk of wa­ter through a mi­cropipette (younger ones re­ceiv ve goat’s milk, which bats di­gest well). She re­turns the baby y to the snug in­cu­ba­tor and re­peats the pro­ce­dure with the oth­ero pups. “If they’re on track, their fore­arms sho ould grow 1mm a day,” she says. Tend­ing to bats is hard work. The prob­lem is their diet: livee in­ver­te­brates. One study found that a sin­gle pipis trelle can con­sume 3,000 midges a night. Sam repli­catesr this with meal­worms and larger morio o worms (bee­tle lar­vae sold as food for wild birds s and pet rep­tiles). Oc­ca­sion­ally, she of­fers cri ick­ets or cock­roaches to the big­ger bats such as noc­tules,n serotines and Leisler’s.

“BATS SOME­HOW UN­DER­STAND YOU ARE TRY­ING TO HELP. THEY ARE VERY AC­CEPT­ING OF WHAT YOU’RE DO­ING.”

Since bats nat­u­rally catch prey in mid-air or, in the case of long-eared bats, glean it from fo­liage, they must be taught how to cope with this strange al­ter­na­tive diet. Train­ing them takes dogged re­solve, yet Sam is con­vinced that they “some­how un­der­stand you are try­ing to help. They’re very ac­cept­ing of what you’re do­ing, un­like res­cued hedge­hogs, which I’ve worked with be­fore.”

At peak times Sam might be look­ing af­ter 25 pups at dif­fer­ing stages of de­vel­op­ment. Older bats in the out­door shel­ter don’t need such fre­quent at­ten­tion, but all feeds have to be painstak­ingly recorded and bats mea­sured and weighed to check their progress. “When I be­gan re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing bats in 2013, I thought I might get 30 or so but re­ceived 65, and since then ev­ery­thing has just snow­balled. In 2016, I took in 250 bats.”

Most come from mem­bers of the pub­lic. “Weak, in­jured or grounded bats are picked up in all sorts of odd places, in­clud­ing a very rare fe­male grey long-eared bat found in a car park last year,” Sam says. Oth­ers are passed on by the po­lice or by Som­er­set’s RSPCA West Hatch An­i­mal Cen­tre and Se­cret World Wildlife Res­cue, a few junc­tions north up the M5. “They ar­rive from fur­ther afield too. Once I was sent a poorly bat from Hamp­shire.”

One rea­son so many bats end up with Sam is be­cause, although over 430 trained re­ha­bil­i­ta­tors are listed on the Bat Con­ser­va­tion Trust’s UK Bat Care Net­work (most of whom vol­un­teer through their lo­cal bat group), the coun­try has only 11 large flight cages for bats to re­cu­per­ate. Most seem to be­long to fe­male vol­un­teers like Sam.

Hand­ing her now-sleep­ing baby to an­other daugh­ter, Sam takes me to see her own shel­ter and flight cage. It re­sem­bles a heavy-duty gar­den shed with an aviary at­tached, but has been metic­u­lously built to cater for bats’ ev­ery need. “Wel­come to the bat cave,” says the door­mat.

In­side the walls are lined with bat boxes, hous­ing a mix of short- and long-term res­i­dents. Soon I am meet­ing Nico the noc­tule, one of Sam’s favourites, and his cur­rent box-mate Light­ning, a Leisler’s bat. Look­ing at them in the hand, I’m struck by how in­cred­i­bly del­i­cate and hu­man their faces are. Next door is a sep­a­rate ma­ter­nity roost, with cloth-cov­ered walls for nurs­ing moth­ers to crawl be­hind.

FLIGHT CLUB

Hatches en­able Sam to ex­er­cise bats that can fly by trans­fer­ring them to the out­side flight cage. This in turn con­tains more boxes for bats that al­ready fly strongly and are well on the way to even­tual re­lease. When I visit, there is a long-eared and Dauben­ton’s bat, sev­eral pip­istrelles and an im­pres­sive sero­tine Sam calls Tro­jan. In ad­di­tion to their meal­worm diet, the bats catch in­sects at­tracted to the cage by a light Sam leaves on overnight – she has planted a wild­flower gar­den along­side to en­sure plenty of in­sects.

Sam’s en­tire op­er­a­tion is self-funded. She is paid for giv­ing talks to schools, youth groups, old peo­ple’s homes and the WI, and for car­ry­ing out the odd bat sur­vey, but oth­er­wise re­lies on do­na­tions. “It can be a strug­gle. I must get through 40kg of meal­worms a year, as well as lots of boxes of gloves, pipettes and kitchen roll.”

Her dream is to set up a Bri­tish bat cen­tre with Na­tional Lot­tery fund­ing. “It would have a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion area with flight pens, an ed­u­ca­tion space, a lec­ture theatre…” There’s no doubt of the need to en­lighten peo­ple about th­ese much­misun­der­stood mam­mals. Even to­day, bats are type­cast as blood-suck­ing fiends, es­pe­cially around Hal­loween, while to some prop­erty de­vel­op­ers they are sim­ply winged rats.

“You’d get schoolkids, tourists, even builders,” Sam con­tin­ues. “And you could train the next gen­er­a­tion of bat car­ers.” She grins. “Bats are so re­ward­ing to be with. Set­ting them free in the wild is a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment, but when you see them do a few cir­cuits around your head be­fore fly­ing off, it’s as if they are say­ing good­bye.”

Bat­woman to the res­cue: Sa­man­tha Pick­er­ing uses a mi­cropipette to give a one-week-old pip­istrelle bat a life-sav­ing drink of warm goat’s milk.

Clock­wise from top left: Sam in­spects a bat that had be­come stuck to fly­pa­per; gently clean­ing a newly ar­rived brown long-eared bat; feed­ing Nico, a noc­tule bat that has lived with Sam for three years; a Leisler’s bat tucks into a tasty meal­worm.

Above: pip­istrelle bats are fre­quent guests. The pup on the left is a com­mon pip­istrelle, and the other a so­prano pip­istrelle. Note the wing claws on mod­i­fied ‘thumbs’. LUCK­ILY, WITH A LIT­TLE ‘TLC’ THE TEE­NI­EST SCRAPS OF SKIN, BONE AND FUR CAN BE SAVED.

Clock­wise from above: a brown long-eared bat in Sam’s flight cage; the same bat has a test flight; a Nat­terer’s bat; Nico the noc­tule wows the crowds at an out­reach event; Nico in close-up.

Left: Sam re­leases young com­mon pip­istrelles into her flight cage at dusk to ex­er­cise. Be­low: when Sam is con­fi­dent that a bat can fly strongly and hunt prey on the wing, it is set free into the dark­en­ing sky.

BEN HOARE is BBC Wildlife’s Fea­tures Edi­tor, as well as a birder and bee­keeper. He vis­ited the Devon bat hos­pi­tal in July.

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