Eschew­ing tall tales of vam­pires and bats out of hell, Stir­ling-based sci­en­tist Liz Fer­rell has made it her life’s work to change per­cep­tions of th­ese en­dear­ing crea­tures. Morag Boot­land meets the first lady of Scot­tish bat­dom

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

The Scot­tish Bat Of­fi­cer is help­ing to change per­cep­tions of this unique mam­mal

Bats have en­dured cen­turies of bad press. Bram Stoker should prob­a­bly shoul­der the ma­jor­ity of the blame for this with his clas­sic novel Drac­ula ce­ment­ing the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween bats and vam­pires, death and the oc­cult. But he’s not alone. Some Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes thought of bats as trick­sters, in Tan­za­nia they were con­sid­ered evil spir­its and in Aztec mythol­ogy as a her­ald of death and destructio­n.

But what has our one and only fly­ing mam­mal done to de­serve this de­cid­edly dodgy rep­u­ta­tion? Per­haps it is this lim­i­nal­ity that makes them so mis­un­der­stood. But for some this is ex­actly where their fas­ci­na­tion lies.

Liz Fer­rell has been the Scot­tish Bat Of­fi­cer for over two years and along with a team of vol­un­teers helps de­liver the Scot­tish Bat Project from the Bat Con­ser­va­tion Trust HQ in Stir­ling and across Scot­land. ‘They’re a re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing group of mam­mals to study,’ she says. ‘They are very se­cre­tive but that means there is so much to learn about them. I sup­pose I quite like pick­ing the un­der­dog and help­ing to change per­cep­tions about bats.’

Funded by Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage, the Scot­tish Bat Project is all about en­gag­ing peo­ple with bats in their lo­cal ar­eas. It’s about help­ing any­one who is in­ter­ested to find like­minded peo­ple and work with their lo­cal bat groups so that they can learn how to mon­i­tor and sur­vey bats. ‘At this time of year a lot of bat groups will be run­ning bat walks for their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties,’ says Liz. ‘Peo­ple can also learn about how to make a bat box or use a bat de­tec­tor. There’s lots of in­for­ma­tion about this on our web­site (www.bats.org.uk).’

Bat de­tec­tors al­low peo­ple to hear the ul­tra­sonic calls that bats use to com­mu­ni­cate. ‘They have a wee mi­cro­phone on the top which picks up the ul­tra­sonic calls and re­duces their fre­quency,’ says Liz. ‘It low­ers the sound and emits a noise from the speaker that we can hear.’

There are ten species of bat in Scot­land. The fur­ther north you go, the fewer species of bats you will find. ‘You can ac­tu­ally find all ten species in the Galloway for­est,’ Liz tells me. ‘By the time you reach the windswept is­lands of Orkney you’ll only find the com­mon pip­istrelle.’

The bats we see most of are the com­mon pip­istrelle and so­prano pip­istrelle. Th­ese are the bats we might see fly­ing around our homes and parks. Pip­istrelle bats are tiny – small enough to fit on a credit card, al­though they look big­ger with their wings spread in flight. And they should be wel­come vis­i­tors to our gar­dens, be­cause ac­cord­ing to Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage a sin­gle pip­istrelle bat can eat up to 3,000 midges in one night.

Broadleaf, ma­ture wood­land is ideal for bats, but here in Scot­land na­tive wood­land has de­clined through the cen­turies due to agri­cul­ture and the tim­ber trade. By the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, wood­land cov­ered only around 5% of Scot­tish land, and de­spite re­plant­ing and pro­tec­tion of what is left of our na­tive wood­land it still only cov­ers around 19%. This loss of habi­tat had a dis­as­trous ef­fect on bat num­bers in Scot­land.

‘Pop­u­la­tions de­clined sharply, for some species by as much as 90%,’ says Liz. Pro­tec­tion for bats was of­fered un­der UK and EU law in the 1980s and this has un­doubt­edly seen them bounce back, but they still need our help to en­sure that they can roost safely. ‘Bats rely on ma­ture trees with spe­cific fea­tures like cracks, crevices or wood­pecker holes to roost in. But with the lack of nat­u­ral habi­tat avail­able they have had to adapt to liv­ing in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, which brings them into con­tact with hu­mans much more than in the past.

‘They’ve adapted re­ally well to liv­ing in build­ings. They aren’t like mice as they don’t chew ca­bles or carry dis­ease,’ says Liz. ‘A lot of our work in­volves chang­ing peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of bats. There’s noth­ing sin­is­ter about them and they don’t have big fangs. They’re ac­tu­ally re­ally fluffy and cute.’

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