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The spotlight falls on the creatures of the night
THERE are bats in the belfry of vicar Caroline Hewlett’s church – and she’s mad about them.
In fact she’s delighted with the tiny tenants who flitter round the churchyard at dusk and have turned St Andrew’s in Grinton into their own cosy home.
Admittedly they can make a bit of a mess but that can always be cleaned up – and, after all, one of the Christian missions is to look after all God’s creatures.
And tomorrow (SAT) evening she’s even inviting local parishioners around to meet their airborne neighbours as they set out on their nightly search for tasty bugs and midges.
Caroline and her Swaledale church are taking part in International Bat Night, an evening set aside to celebrate the only mammal that ever bothered to learn to properly fly under its own power.
And yes, that’s right, it’s a mammal, not a rodent - despite foreign names like fledermaus or even the Old English flittermouse. In fact its DNA is far nearer that of a human than a mouse – so perhaps Bruce Wayne knew what he was doing when he took on the mantle of Batman.
Astonishingly the diverse species of bats make up around a quarter of the 4,000-plus known mammals in the world and their numbers are growing all the time. One new species was recently identified in India and another, striped like a badger, was found in South Sudan.
North Yorkshire boasts some 11 different species while there are almost as many in County Durham. All are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, with heavy fines facing those who disturb the animals or their roosts.
The legislation was introduced in 1981 after bat populations suffered severe declines from persecution, loss of roosts and changing land use. The conservation efforts are working and many species are now thriving although some are still struggling.
Among the latter is the grey long-eared bat. Now one of Britain’s rarest mammals, it is estimated there are only about 1,000 left and it could be on the verge of extinction in this country. Not surprisingly there have been calls to give it even greater protection.
John Drewett, based near Bedale, is a naturalist, conservationist and acknowledged bat expert, licenced by Natural England, who carries out surveys all over the region to help organisations abide by the rules.
The 55-year-old loves the misunderstood creatures of the night – and clearly thinks others should too.
“Bats are good for the environment and their presence is actually a sign of a healthy environment,” he said.
“They can get through the tiniest of gaps to roost but they don’t chew their way through things like pests do. They leave a lot of droppings but they tend to be crumbly as they are made up of things like insect wings because of their diet.”
The common pipistrelle is a case in point. Widespread in range but tiny in size, it is small enough - with wings folded - to fit comfortably into a matchbox, but its voracious appetite is a boon to any gardener, munching its way through 3,000 to 4,000 midges in a single night’s hunting.
Even the dreaded vampire bat, beloved of horror films, is nowhere near the villain its name suggests and is actually beneficial to us humans.
There are only three species - all in South America – and they lap, rather than suck, blood from cattle and birds. To stop their food from clotting their saliva uses a chemical which has been synthesised by scientists to create an anti-coagulant now used in the world of medicine. That’s hardly the work of Dracula.
Tales of bats getting caught up in women’s hair also appear to be one of the myths that surround bats. Contrary to the popular saying, they aren’t blind – and even though the best of eyes can struggle at night, their sophisticated echolocation system helps make them remarkably agile in the air.
The animals are also not of the “here today, gone tomorrow” variety. Bats can live as long as 30 years and most will stay loyal to their roosting places – like Caroline’s church – for as long as they can.
“There are three different sorts that live in St Andrew’s and a few years ago we thought they were a bother, flying about inside and poohing everywhere,” she recalled. “But now we have learnt about them we try to celebrate them.”
The Yorkshire Dales National Park has supported the church which now even boasts a bat board and the “celebration” has now developed into wider conservation work with the birds, flowers and insects that flourish in the churchyard.
“We still have to clear up after the bats but we can also study them and use them to help educate us all,” said Caroline.
Shee will be leading a bat watch at the church – complete with refreshments – from 8pm tomorrow as part of the International Bat Night.
*Tonight (FRI) the Forestry Commission is holding a bat walk along the River Derwent at Chopwell Wood, near Rowlands Gill. Booking is essential on (01434) 220242.
Durham County Council are running a free bat event at Crimdon Dene, near Blackhall, on August 29 from 7.15. Contact Louise Harrington on 0773 9187422.
The Bat Conservation Trust has a helpline for people with bat-related issues – 01845 1300 228. Visit their website at bats.org.uk or to find local bat hotspots visit bigbatmap.org/?action=hotspots
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