Bats are harmless and benevolent. Amy Lewis presents a beginner’s guide to spotting these wonderful creatures in Ireland.
As darkness descends on another long summer’s day and we tug our curtains shut, a group of unique creatures are just beginning to emerge in every county across Ireland.
They can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night, have been found to defy some of the usual processes of ageing and have echolocation so finely tuned that they can navigate around a single strand of hair.
While they might sound like something from a sci-fi novel, they’re actually something we are all familiar with: Bats. Ireland is currently home to nine resident species of bat and summer is the ideal time to witness them in action.
“In summer, bats are not long out of hibernation, while it’s also reproduction season. This makes it peak foraging time for them,” says Megan Power, PhD research fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Evolution and Mammalian Phylogenetics in UCD.
“The weather we’ve been having is ideal for them too. If the weather is good, insect populations will be high.”
Our most common bats are the common and soprano pipistrelles and the Leisler’s bat, also known as the Irish bat as Ireland is a stronghold for the species. Regardless of your location, Paul Scott of Dublin Bat Group and Bat Conservation Ireland says bats are easily found.
“The best place to spot them is somewhere with water and not too much street lighting, so perhaps by canals or in public parks. To see larger numbers, large lakes or canals are best,” says Paul, who adds that anywhere with trees or waterbodies attracts them due to the availability of insects. “The time to look for them is just after sunset.”
When it comes to choosing between rural and city living, bats aren’t fussy. In Dublin, places such as Phoenix Park, and the banks of the Dodder and Tolka rivers are popular bat-spotting sites, while Paul has even witnessed them flying above O’Connell St.
“You find them in strangest of places. They’re not at all bothered with people.”
Bat populations in Ireland can generally be described as stable, according to Dr Tina Aughney of Bat Conservation Ireland, adding that we must be cautious when saying this.
“Bats are very slow reproducing animals and only have one baby per year. You need to get about 25 years worth of data to see what is happening with them before you can really say something about their populations.”
To help in the conservation of Irish bats, Bat Conservation Ireland currently manages four main monitoring schemes: The car-based bat monitoring surveys, the brown long-eared bat roost monitoring scheme, lesser horseshoe bat roost monitoring and the all-Ireland Daubenton’s bat waterways survey. They place a great emphasis on citizen science and offer free training to members of the public who wish to get involved. The waterways survey, which takes place each August, is their most popular.
“We have up to 200 people participating each year. Along with learning to spot various species of bat, it’s great for seeing other wildlife such as badgers foxes and owls,” says Tina.
Volunteers can participate in one of the many two-hour training courses nationwide in July. The survey itself sees every team monitoring ten spots along a one kilometre stretch of waterway, each one for four minutes each. Bat Conservation Ireland will loan bat detectors — devices that pick up ultrasound and convert it to an audible sound — to anyone taking part.
People can also take smaller steps in their locality to help in bat conservation, by erecting a bat box, planting night-scented plants and reducing the amount of light in their garden and community. Additionally, they can take part in a bat walk held by one of the many local bat groups nationwide. Paul currently leads the Dublin Bat Group walks.
“Although it’s a night-time activity, you would be surprised at the number of kids there. Kids will be there until 11pm. because they’re fascinated by bats. When you start to tell anyone the facts, they become fascinated too.”
Paul tries to kick off the walks by dispelling some of the myths about bats. They are more closely related to humans and primates than rodents. Contrary to common belief, bats aren’t blind and they don’t get caught in people’s hair or spread rabies.
“Everyone is afraid of things that creep around in the dark,” he says. “For a long time, people didn’t know much about bats because they’re harder to study so people generated myths around them.”
The true facts about bats are as astounding as the myths. Earlier this year, a team of UCD researchers discovered one reason why certain species of bats have extraordinarily long lifespans relative to their small size. By focusing on telomeres — structures at the end of chromosomes that usually shorten with age and lead to cell breakdown — they found that some species of bat retain long telomeres throughout their lives. Through her research, which is funded through an Irish Research Council Scholarship, Megan is building on these previous findings.
“I’m trying to discover whether bats are regulating their telomeres during stressful life events,” she explains, adding that some bats have been found to live to 41 years of age.
While bats may help scientists to unlock some of the secrets about ageing, they also play other useful roles. “They are a bio-indicator meaning they are good indicators of how healthy our environment is,” says Paul. “Bats are an extremely vital part of our ecosystem,” adds Megan. “They help maintain and regulate insects. They provide key ecosystem services worldwide through the pollination of plants and crops.”
“I always encourage people to have a look at the many species of bat and the different things they do. I may be biased but I think they’re beautiful.”
More information can be found on the Bat Conservation Ireland Facebook page or website.
(First published in the Irish Examiner on July 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/high-temperatures-send-bats-swooping-in-852307.html)