Life on the bat line

I joined South Lancashire Bat Group two years ago today. Truth be told bats had not been a stand out interest of mine before then. I was interested in them in the same way I am about most things that fall under the umbrella of ‘nature’ but if you’d asked me to list the things I liked best they wouldn’t have come immediately to mind.

As a protected species however, they are unavoidable in the field of ecology and one of the main pieces of advice I was given by my mentor (who I met via the uni’s ‘mentor-match’ programme) Richard when we first met was to join my local bat group and get as involved as possible. After a while you may get the opportunity to work towards your bat licence with them, he said.

So I joined South Lancs Bat Group and started going along to meetings and events. Over the past two years with the group I’ve learned an interesting lesson which is that there is more than one route to acquiring a passion for something. Some stuff you’re driven to do, it’s been an interest for as long as you can remember in some form or another and it never fails to inspire you. For me that’s botany. Other things happen slowly, you work at them because you understand it’s a good idea. Then one day you notice that it’s become a hobby as well. That’s bats in my case. I didn’t have my eureka moment when I first laid eyes on a bat as some people do. For me it happened slowly…

One of the things I like most about bat work, be that the consultancy bat work I’ve been doing on my work placement or voluntary work through bat charities, is that the difficulty they provide in working with them breeds a host of interesting and unusual methods with which to counter the difficulty. They’re elusive, nocturnal, silent to the human ear and they fly. As a result studying them requires all sorts of cool kit that at times make you feel more like a Ghostbuster than an ecologist.

Entering the world of bat groups and bat work is like discovering a secret society of hackers, crackpot scientists and explorers. Except they’re perfectly sane and their methods are scientifically tested and peer-reviewed. Coordinated  gangs of people meeting in the woods at night with gadgets to hear and record the unhearable, gatherings of people in quirky function rooms on weekends to teach each other how to tell the difference between bat species, people up trees or canoeing on canals, DNA tests and night vision goggles…it’s cool even without the bats so it wasn’t hard to show up and join in.

But it’s been the bat line that has really won me over. Our group has a phone number that people in the area can call if they find a grounded or injured bat (or if they want bat-based advice).

There are people who man the bat line. This involves checking an answer phone for messages every couple of hours on your allotted day, returning the calls, answering any questions and arranging for a bat carer or roost visitor to liaise with the caller if required. Then there are the bat carers and roost visitors who are those trained to care for injured bats or those with licenses to visit roosts.

I trained to man the bat line last December and have been dealing with calls every Tuesday since. In that time I have dealt with a variety of calls from a variety of people.

One man was concerned with the tree felling taking place in his local park. He believed there may be bats roosting in the trees. Later that week I saw a picture of him in the paper, he’d climbed a tree and was refusing to come down.

A vicar called. He’d found a bat in his church and someone had helped him put it in a box. He was terrified of it. The bat in the box was making him afraid to even go into his church. He wouldn’t have liked my mum’s local crematorium. She told me a story about a funeral she’d been to there where part way through the service,  bats had begun flying around the room and then dropping to the floor around the guests. Members of staff had to creep about picking up bats and putting them in a box while the vicar did their reading.

A lady called complaining about the bats in her garden. They were swooping around her children she said. And there were lots of bat droppings on her door step. Why might that be she asked? This is a good example of the PR work required on the bat line, and one of the things that has fuelled my enthusiasm for bats. I found myself talking to a stranger on the phone who didn’t like bats, probably had a bat roost in her house and didn’t yet know about it. I told her all about how great bats were, and how they are clean and not smelly. I asked her what she thought of midges? She didn’t like them either. Bats eat up to 3000 midges a night I told her. She quite liked that. I asked if she’d like one of our roost visitors to come to her house and have a look and give her some advice. She liked that too. Job done. Onto the next call.

An elderly couple had sat in their garden one evening and observed 129 bats fly out of the loft. We’ve got bats, she said and asked how she went about getting rid of them? I found myself talking to a stranger who obviously considered bats to be like having mice in her house and I was about to tell her it would be against the law to disturb them. What do you think of midges? I asked her…

A man called with a harrowing tale of two bats he’d found in a storage tub in his garage. One was dead and the other was clinging onto it, barely alive. He emailed me a photo so I could see how dead the dead one was. Like many other calls I’ve taken like this I took his details and had a look at our google map of bat carers and roost visitors to see who was nearest. Then I spent some time getting hold of different people until I found one who was able to take in an injured bat that night. I passed on the man’s details and they liased to exchange the bat and hopefully nurse it back to health and release it.

That’s the last I hear of individual cases on the bat line. At the monthly meetings the bat care secretary delivers the stats for that month. How many injured bats in, how many released, how many die and how many need to be euthanized. Some make it, others don’t. A lot of people dedicate a lot of time and energy to achieve the result of some of the bats taken in being released. Disproportionate you could argue…

One of my favourite science-fiction stories is The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury. After stepping on a butterfly while on a time traveling trip to the Jurassic era, a man returns home to the future to find it’s not as he left it. That butterfly was food for another creature and ancestor to a billion others who all had their place in history. Without it things just weren’t the same. I like to think of the bats that get successfully rereleased this way. They are the potential ancestors of and food to countless others. You’re not just adding one creature back into the mix, the effects can spread far further than that.

Earlier this year I trained as a bat carer and last week I got my rabies form back from the doctors confirming that I up to date on my jabs. Now I can experience the other side of the bat line. Yesterday was Tuesday, my day on the line. One call: a couple on Chorlton had found a bat in their porch. Perfect! Chorlton is ten minutes down the road from me. I arranged to collect it when I got home from work. I left work early so could tidy the  spare room in preparation and read up on the bat care workshop notes, People at work wished me luck…

Having recently (finally) passed my driving test I was able to drive to the person’s house. When I arrived he was stood on his doorstep looking into an open shoe-box. Sadly the bat was dead. Some make it, some don’t.

My first injured bat as a bat care for South Lancs Bat Group. Sadly this little fella was already dead when I collected it. Holes in its wings and the cat at the property give you a good idea how it died.

I had a look at its wings and they had puncture holes which I imagine would have matched the cat’s teeth which was winding around its owner’s legs when I collected the bat from them, Cat’s can of course not help their predatory nature. It was this bat’s misfortune that the two animals met.

Fingers crossed next time will be a more positive experience. What’s nice is that after making the effort to get into bats, putting in the time and work, I am now genuinely excited about the prospect.

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5 thoughts on “Life on the bat line

  1. Reminded of Batman begins – bats being the only thing he truly fears and a wish to share his fear. Not quite Ray Bradbury I admit.
    I have been inspired by the blog toward bat theory – bat practice worries me, not from fear of them but the thought of frightening or hurting the creature. My previous with “assisting” stricken beasts is not happy – a cat with a broken back and a rabbit with myxomatosis – on both occasions I was advised to end the suffering, preferably with a brick.
    I can think of a few funeral services which would have profited from some bat activity !
    Keep up the inspiring blog, but watch the greengrocers apostrophe’s !

    • Thanks Roger,

      It’s a bit like batman begins only rather than choosing something “elemental, something terrifying” I chose “something antisocial, something frustrating”.

      And I share your worries about frightening and hurting the little beasts. Experiences handling bats have illustrated the need to find the precise balance of firm and gentle. Too firm and you may hurt them but too gentle and they wriggle about and make it impossible! I liken it to when you see mother crocodiles on wildlife docs carrying their fragile young in their mighty jaws. That’s the balance we strive for.

      I shall indeed take more care over my apostropharian greengrocery.

      Tim.

  2. I loved this post. I’m a rescuer/volunteer/blogger for Bat World Sanctuary over here in Texas, and I’ve been writing about my own experiences getting started as well. It’s really really interesting to see how it strikes someone else. With us it’s much more focused on tending the resident bats that are unreleasable for whatever reason, but we do rescues much like you do. We’d love to do the rest of the things you describe: the late night forest excursions with bat detectors and whatnot, but we can’t ever seem to make time for it. All in all, though, it’s an experience like no other, but then you know that. And it totally IS like the Ghostbusters, wow. My friend and I were JUST saying that.

    As for you and the other guy in the comments, I totally shared that fear of handling them, and you’re dead on about a balance of firm and gentle. For me it’s usually too much gentle, too little firm, but I’m getting better. And god do they wiggle. They do so expertly. Champion wigglers.

    Really great post, though, and I am definitely going to check out more of your work when I get the time 🙂

    • Thanks for that. Just checkout out yours too, interesting stuff, and I like your point on rabies! We only have one species that carries it over here and cases are very rare. What species do you get in your area? Has WNS reached you guys?

      • Thank you too, it’s good to meet someone else writing about similar experiences. I write about it all a lot more seriously on BWS’ Inside Bat World blog. As for your questions, just bear in mind that I’m still pretty new to all this and have so much to learn, but I think I can handle these. Our species in this region (North Central Texas) are mainly Mexican free tails, big browns and red bats, with the free tails by far being the most numerous. In fact, I haven’t even seen a red bat in person yet, and most of my experience is actually with the resident fruit bat colony we have, which are unreleasable simply because they’re not even native to North America, much less our area, and most have never seen their homes anyway and likely couldn’t survive in the wild. They all come from the exotic pet trade, zoos and haven’t been treated well by people. Our incidences of rabies is quite low too, something like .5%, and all the cases I know of have been free tails, although I think it’s seen among reds and big browns as well. It’s by far the biggest misconception among the public that we encounter, people seem to think rabid bats are very common. It leads to them being pretty badly demonized. Very frustrating.

        WNS, to my knowledge, hasn’t reached Texas, and Amanda (Lollar, BWS’ founder) was just telling me that some people think Mexican free tails might be immune to it. She doesn’t think so herself, she thinks they haven’t been affected simply because they migrate rather than hibernate, so they’re never still long enough for the fungus to take hold. It’s speculation on both sides, although my money’s on Amanda, but either way our local bats might just be very lucky when it comes to WNS. Still, it’s only a matter of time before it gets here, and we may all be wrong.

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