I used these at a workshop at the National Bat Conference in York earlier this year. It was fun watching people surrepitiously scratching!
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Sadly, when the two bats flew I didn't have the camera to hand and it was over very quickly, so you'll just have to take my word for the last part!
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A regular feature of this paper is a series entitled "Curiosities of British Natural History" and this issue's feature is about bats. Sadly, the author's name is not given but it was either someone who knew the subject or who did a good deal of research as it contains several pages of detailed description of the subject.
Above the start is a gorgeous engraving, showing a Noctule, a Pipistrelle and a Long-eared Bat. The latter has a thoroughly cheesy grin on its face and the Noctule looks too portly to fly, but some of the anatomy is surprisingly detailed: presumably they were engraved from dead specimens.
The article begins with the enticing statement "It may surprise some of our readers to be informed that sixteen or seventeen distinct species of bats are natives of the British Isles". What?! That is our current understanding (depending on whether you include the Greater Mouse-eared or not). In 1843 the two Pipistrelles had not been separated, nor had Brandts and Whiskered Bats. The finding of Nathusius Pipistrelles in Britain was long in the future and, although it had been described elsewhere, I don't think the Grey Long-eared had been discovered in Britain at that time.
So what were the other four species? Unfortunately, the anonymous author doesn't tell us. In fact he only describes eight species, dismissing all the others as "extremely rare and restricted to certain localities". Was he guessing? Was he reading a foreign book and assuming the same species were here? Was he including some long-dismissed sub-species or perhaps bats found in part of the Empire? How frustrating!
The species he describes are: The Common Bat (Pipistrelle); The Great Bat (Noctule); The Long-eared Bat; The Barbastelle; The Reddish-grey Bat (Natterer's); the Whiskered Bat and the Greater and Lesser Horseshoe Bats. The obvious missing species is the Daubenton's, which must surely have been known at that time and would have been relatively easy to distinguish.
As with all writing of the era, wordsmithing was a priority and some of the descriptive text is fantastic: "Often during warm summer evenings have we seen numbers, perhaps several scores, of the Common Bat flitting over pools, in chase of gnats and similar insects, or gambolling with each other in a mazy dance, ever and anon uttering sharp shrill cries of exultation and delight..." The shill calls were presumably social calls, which are sometimes just within the range of human hearing. Incidentally, a score at that time was an innocent number twenty, in case you think the author was using dried bats for questionable purposes.
The piece includes a surprising amount of scientific detail, for example listing the species found to hibernate in caves as Natterer's, Whiskereds, Barbastelles and Long-eareds, though again Daubenton's are conspicuously absent (could it be they confused them with Natterer's at this time?). Given that this was a popular paper, not a scientific journal, there is a remarkable amount of detail: something today's press could learn from.
As with today's press however, the author just can't resist a lurid story and describes bats stealing bacon from chimneys and eating meat in larders. Not perhaps as daft as it sounds, in an era when bacon was hung in chimneys to cure and when meat was kept open in a larder. Houses would have been quite porous to bats at that time and I can imagine a stray Pipistrelle within a house, finding itself next to a joint of raw meat, having a nibble, possibly for the water content.
Something exciting about old texts like this is when they describe the location of bat roosts. The author mentions a Noctule roost under the eaves of Queen's College Cambridge and Greater Horseshoes occupying caves "at Clifton and in Kent's Hole, near Torquay". If anyone reading this lives in those areas, it would be fascinating to know if these sites are still occupied, 166 years later!
At the time this paper was produced, people were still grasping to understand how bats found their way in the dark, and, reading the author's description one gets a sense of his frustration: they knew there was something special about it, but couldn't quite put their finger on it:
"There is a singular property with which the bats is endowed, too remarkable and curious to be passed altogether unnoticed. The wings of these creatures consist, as we have seen, of a delicate and nearly naked membrane of vast amplitude considering the size of the body; but besides this, the nose is in some furnished with a membranous foliation, and in others the external membranous ears are enormously developed. Now these membranous tissues have their sensibility so high, that something like a new sense somehow accrues, as if in aid of that of sight. The modified impressions which the air in quiescence, or in motion, however slight, communicates; the tremulous jar of its currents, its temperature, the indescribable condition of such portions of air as are in contact with different bodies, are all apparently appreciated by the bat." So near, yet so far!
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One evening in September I was relaxing in the bar at Preston Montford Field Centre, near Shrewsbury during a training course. My phone made one of the irritating noises that mobiles make, to tell me I had received a text from Carol and Nigel, both active members of Lothians Bat Group. They attached a photo, with the tongue-in-cheek message "do you know what this is?!" You're probably ahead of me here - it was a Noctule, of course. To rub my nose in it, they had found it in a bat box at a country park 2 miles from my home. If I hadn't been on the course I would probably have been there when the boxes were checked. Grumpy wasn't the word for my response....
To put this in context, these two animals were both found in boxes in a county where I can count previous records of Noctules in flight on my fingers. Was it coincidence (or was it the same bat, with a sense of humour?) or does this tie in with our new knowledge of the spread of Noctules? It was certainly a surprise in an area with many bat box schemes and two decades history of only ever finding Pipistrelles in them. By coincidence, in 2007 and 2008 a small colony of Natterer's Bats were found in a West Lothian bat box, so these Noctules seemed too good to be true.
Stuart Smith, chairman of Lothians Bat Group (and one of the grandees of Scottish bat-work), came up with an unusual plan to respond to these new records by installing some new bat boxes, higher than normal, something he had seen at a Vincent Wildlife Trust site in Dorset. Most bat boxes in the Lothians are between 12 and 20 feet (3.7-6.1m ) above ground. Noctules are tree-roosting bats, with a tendency to roost in tree holes, often high up, so higher boxes makes sense. The problem is that 20 feet is the maximum height for access by ladder, without extra safety measures and skills.
The solution? Suspended bat boxes! We used Schwegler woodcrete bat boxes, suspended from pulleys attached to high branches. Wire rope is used to pull the boxes up to full height -around 40-45 feet above ground (12.3-13.8m) - and tied off on bolts mounted on the tree trunk. These are at ladder height, to prevent the local "yoof" from reaching them. When we need to check and clean the boxes we will simply climb a ladder to normal height, unwind the wire rope from the bolts and lower the box to ground level. Once finished, we simply haul the box back to the top of the tree and tie off the wire rope once more. Ingenious!
Now, there is a chicken and egg problem here: how to get 40 feet up to mount the pulley? The Bat Group is lucky to have access to the services of a professional tree-climber, who also has an affinity for bats. George used his skills to climb the trees and install pulleys for us, making it look easy, as tree climbers always do. However, it's very hard work: you need to combine a high level of physical fitness with some somewhat counter-intuitive skills. Come to think of it, strolling about at the top of a tall tree as about as counter-intuitive as it's possible to be!
Watching a bat-box being hauled 40 feet into the top of a tree was quite exciting. Whether they will attract Noctules remains to be seen...
With work over for the day, George offered a couple of group members the opportunity to try out tree climbing techniques (at very low height) and so, trussed up and roped to the tree, we took our turns at making fools of ourselves. I had tried my hand at this in the past, so probably should have known better, but didn't.
An advantage of this being my blog is that you won't get to see my feeble attempt at tree climbing. However, this seems a good moment to wreak revenge on Carol for last year's Noctule text message. You have to hand it to her: she's enjoying herself, even if she isn't making much progress up the tree!
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