A NIGHT WITH BATWOMAN
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
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.’