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.
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.”
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.
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.