Truth behind the creatures that inspired Batman

Natalie Todman says that bats are often misunderstood creatures
Natalie Todman says that bats are often misunderstood creatures
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AS the sun sets slowly and the shadow of night looms over the royal palace, something – in fact, many tiny things – starts to stir.

With barely a sound, wings spread wide, they set off on their nocturnal adventure, sweeping and soaring into the night sky in search of the tiniest of meals, a tasty cocktail of pesky midges and whatever other minute insects can be found.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse may seem an unlikely “bat cave”. But scores of the tiny mammals have made the royal quarters and nearby ruined abbey a bustling roosting spot.

According to Holyrood Park conservation ranger Natalie Todman – the service’s very own “bat girl” – bats have settled into the palace and the abbey, drawn by the cosy roosting spots and the nearby park and loch with their healthy insect food supply.

“There aren’t that many trees around, so they are roosting in the buildings,” explains Natalie. “Some bats, probably small pipistrelles, are in the palace and we know that there are Daubenton’s bats in the abbey.

“I wouldn’t like to comment on what the Queen’s feelings are about it,” she smiles, “but in all the interaction we have had with people who work at the palace, everyone is very supportive of the bats.”

Certainly the palace bat population is the strangest of royal squatters – for their status as a fragile and protected species means that even if the royal household does become unamused and wants to get rid of them, they’ll have to ask for legal permission first.

While the caped crusader himself, Batman, always comes out fighting and on top, the tiny creatures whose “super powers” the Dark Knight emulates, are given special protection as they face a dramatic battle of their own.

Their most recent foe is not the Joker and not even the Penguin. Instead, it’s something far scarier – Scotland’s dire weather.

It’s feared the nation’s bat population – notoriously difficult to judge by its nocturnal nature – has been dealt 
a hammer blow by this year’s wash-out summer which has dampened down insect activity and left adult bats struggling to feed and raise their pups.

That is a double “kapow!” for tiny mammals already battling against the loss of traditional foraging areas, the use of pesticides and even the use of wood treatments in houses which make roosting spots toxic.

On top of all of that it seems there is a further modern threat to their existence. Earlier this week academics from Stirling University announced small wind turbines – increasingly popular among homeowners – can halve bat activity in their immediate area. It’s a series of blows for bats which, says Natalie, are notoriously misunderstood and often under-appreciated. “Because we don’t see bats very much, people tend not to think too much about them. But they perform an important ecosystem role. They are so tiny and so important – and fascinating.”

According to Scottish Natural Heritage, bat numbers have been declining in Scotland since the 1960s, with some bat species becoming extinct in some areas. And while there are more than 1000 different species of bats in the world and around 16 in the UK, only nine exist in Scotland. Of that, just five types are regarded as widespread and the rest branded “rare”.

Bat hunters in Lothian have pinpointed seven species – tiny pipistrelle soprano and pipistrelle bandit varieties along with slightly larger Daubenton’s bats are the most 
common. The others are often in 
such small numbers that it’s tricky 
to assess just how many there are at all.

“Bats have suffered mainly due to there being fewer roosting opportunities and foraging habitats,” explains Natalie. “The intensive farming post-war harmed the bat population too.

“The weather we have had this summer is not helping. When it’s wet or windy, the insects don’t fly – and all bats eat are insects.

“They’re already confused because it was warm in March and then the next week it snowed. I think it will all have serious consequences for their numbers.

“What’s unfortunate is that we don’t really have enough data to see what our bats are doing. At least we know that at Holyrood things are fairly healthy.”

There are around 20 female Daubenton’s bats in the abbey raising their pups, while pipistrelles have been seen sweeping around the park.

As bats are difficult to spot in the night sky, Natalie uses a bat detector – a handheld device that records the ultrasonic bat calls and turns them into audible sounds – to help spot which bats are where.

“A pipistrelle makes a rich ‘poppy’ kind of sound,” she explains. “And the Daubenton’s bats have a faster sound, like a Geiger counter, so by listening to the tone you can tell which bats are where and how many there might be.

“Most people with a bat roost in their home won’t even know they are there and they don’t create any major problems. It’s only if the roost is large and above a bedroom that you might hear something.”

Having bats in the loft – if not the belfry, or the palace roof – may not be to everyone’s taste. And their protected status means you can’t just call in pest control to dispose of them.

“But it is a bit of an urban myth that you can’t do anything at all,” points out Natalie. “Legislation is there to protect bats, but there’s also a licensing system, so that if the bats do become a problem you can do something to move them on.”

Yet, she insists, once people get to know more about bats they learn to love them. “Most people’s response when they first see a live bat is to say how very tiny it is – a pipistrelle can fit in a matchbox and weighs the same as a 2p coin.

“They are tiny and when you think that they eat thousands of midges in one night and fly quite long distances, they are really amazing. People think of bats and think of rodents, but that could not be further from the truth. In fact, bats are closely related to primates rather than mice.

“They are fascinating to watch. Daubenton’s fly so close to the water to feed – a centimetre off the surface, their echolocation is so finely tuned and they are so accurate it is very rare indeed to see a bat take a wrong turn.

“They are very misunderstood little creatures.”

sdick@edinburghnews.com