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Bats and biodiversity: facts and myths about these flying mammals.

2011-12 is the international 'Year of the Bat', so we felt it timely to dispel some bat myths and to champion these elusive creatures that play such an important role in our biodiversity.

What is the 'Year of the Bat'?

The 'Year of the Bat' is a two-year global species awareness initiative which promotes conservation, research and education about bats. It is led by the UN's Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS), and supported in the UK by the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT). Its main focus is to highlight the ecological benefits that bats provide, such as pest control and seed dispersal, but also to draw attention to the pressures and problems faced by the world's 1100 bat species.

According to the BCT, "despite intensified conservation efforts, over half of all bat species [worldwide] are now classified ... as threatened or near threatened. Habitat loss and destruction, human disturbance at hibernation sites, increasing urbanisation and epidemics ... are putting bats increasingly in danger. Bat species throughout the world need continued protection."

Why bother with bats?

Many people are unaware of the vital role that bats play in ecosystems around the world. For example, many bats feed on nocturnal insects, and this includes disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and insects that cause damage to crops. In many parts of the world, bats are important in terms of seed dispersal and pollination. This not only impacts on natural plant species, such as helping to sustain tropical rainforests, but it can also have an effect on human food production (e.g. fruit agriculture).

There are 17 breeding species of bat in the UK, including the Common Pipistrelle (our commonest species), the Noctule (the largest British bat, although it would still fit into the palm of your hand!), Daubenton's (which scoops insects off the surface of water with their feet or tail), Bechstein's (one of our rarest bats) and the Alcathoe bat, which was only identified as a new species in 2010. These bats are important indicators of both biodiversity and environmental quality, particularly as they are nocturnal and therefore differ from other indicator species such as butterflies and birds.

According to the BCT: "They can tell us a lot about the state of the environment, as they are top predators of common nocturnal insects and are sensitive to changes in land use practices. The pressures they face--such as landscape change, agricultural intensification, development, and habitat fragmentation--are also relevant to many other wildlife species, making them excellent indicators for the wider health of the UK's wildlife."

What can you do to help bats?

As natural habitats become more scarce, gardens and school grounds can play an important role in the conservation of our native bat species, which use them as a source of food, water and shelter. Suggestions for encouraging bats include: planting night-scented flowers, building a pond and allowing areas to grow wild (all of which help to attract nocturnal insects); putting up bat boxes to replace their disappearing natural roost sites such as old trees or caves; and cultivating linear features such as hedgerows or tree-lines to link the bats' feeding places and roosts.

There are many opportunities for children to become involved, for example growing suitable plants, helping to choose the best places to locate bat boxes (e.g. in a sheltered spot, out of the reach of predators such as cats), and even making bat boxes of their own!

Whilst they are unlikely to be able to observe bats during school time, children may observe them in the early evening as bats are crepuscular: they mainly hunt at dawn and dusk when flying insects are the most active. Perhaps by organising a family bat evening or joining a walk run by your local bat group (a list of these can be found on the BCT website). Bat detectors are also useful in helping to locate and study bats. These are devices which convert the ultrasonic calls of bats into sounds that we can hear (again, information can be found on the BCT website).

If there are bats known to roost in your school grounds or local area, the children could even examine their droppings to find out what they eat! Obviously they would need to wear gloves and it would be best to enlist the help of a bat expert.

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The best places to encounter flying bats are: outside roost sites (counting the bats as they leave and re-enter), over bodies of water (where night-flying insects are abundant), or in sheltered places such as woodlands or hedgerows. Remember that bats hibernate during the winter months because of the lack of insects for them to feed on. Also remember that all species of UK bat are protected by law, so you should not enter roost sites without permission or disturb the bats.

For more information about bats, how to study them and how to create bat-friendly habitats, visit the following websites:

* The Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) www.bats.org.uk, has a wealth of information on all things batty!

* The official 'Year of the Bat' website www.yearofthebat.org.

* www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Bat

* www.wildlifetrusts.org/species/

* www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/wildlifegarden

* www.wildaboutgardens.org/wildlife

* www.cheshirewildlifetrust.co.uk/documents/advice_bats.pdf

* Search online for local bat groups, such as the Warwickshire Bat Group: www.warksbats.co.uk

Totally batty!

Dispelling some of the myths

Bats are flying rats

Bats are not rats; they're not even related to them (apart from the fact that both are mammals, but so are we!). Rats belong to the Order Rodentia, while bats are part of the Chiroptera order.

Bats feed on blood and are vicious towards humans

Most bats don't feed on blood: they eat fruit or small insects that they hunt at night. The only bats that do feed on blood, Vampire bats, prefer the blood of cattle, horses or birds. Bats are not normally aggressive animals, but like any other wild animal, they may bite if they are handled, they get injured or they are scared.

Bats are blind

It's true that most bats have poor eyesight, but they are not actually blind. They can see in black and white and their vision is best at night. They do rely more on their sense of echolocation, a form of sonar, to find their way around and hunt for prey.

Juliette Green

Executive member

NAEE
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Title Annotation:Case Study: Wildlife in the Curriculum
Author:Green, Juliette
Publication:Environmental Education
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2012
Words:1085
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