Seventeen go bats

Anne Spencer August 2012


The Millennium Green Trust has something of a reputation. They are always lucky with the weather and on the evening of Saturday 18th August, their luck continued! Seventeen villagers gathered at the churchyard to hunt for bats. Ranging from the quite young to the well-retired, it was clear that bats appeal to all ages.


Led by Staffordshire Ecological Services' Principal Ecologist, Dave Haslam, the intrepid adventurers began with an introduction to bats. There are 17 species in the UK and Dave was hopeful that we would find four or five species around the Millennium Green.


Dave started by checking that everyone knew how bats find their way in the dark. Using echolocation – something like sonar – they send out sounds that bounce back. Picking up the sound on its return enables the bat to tell how far away something is, if it is moving, which way it is moving and what it is 'made of' (insect or leaf for example). This requires extraordinarily sensitive hearing and this enabled Dave to dispel some myths. Bats do not live in Belfries! They do like churches because there are some nice holes for them to squeeze into to roost or hibernate but the bells in the belfries are just too loud! Also the amazing sensitivity of their hearing means that they do not get caught in people's hair – they are too skilful for that!


Sometimes people think bats are quite big – but the Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) is tiny. It weighs the same as a two pence coin and its head and body are just one and a half inches (38mm) long. Its wingspan, however is 9 inches (234 mm). This is why bats look big when they are seen flying – they have much larger wingspans than the length of their bodies. All bats have furry bodies of different shades of brown, ranging from dark, almost black through to light buff, almost white on their tummies! They have bright little eyes that are about as sensitive as ours – so they can 'see' conventionally' as well as with their echolocation.


The next job before setting off to explore was to find out how to use a bat detector. Ranging in price from about £50 up to several thousand pounds, everyone was keen to use the bat detectors to 'hear' the bats. In fact a few people (usually young people) have hearing sensitive enough to hear the bats as they call to each other, but the electronic wizardry of bat detectors catches the sounds, lowers, and slows the sounds to make it audible to enthusiastic bat hunters. Operating the bat detector involves twiddling a couple of knobs to select the frequency for the target species of bat (each species has its 'normal' range) and then turning up the volume.


Having mastered the technique, we set off around the church to see what was about. Initially this involved a lot of standing around chatting while we waited for the sun to set. Having nice weather had just one 'downside' – it stayed light quite late and the bats don't come out until it is quite dark. The 'upside' was that we were treated to some stunning skies – the reds, pinks, violets, deep blues and purples were in some ways unreal – it was said that if an artist painted those colours, people would not believe them!


Eventually it was dark enough and then the bat detectors started beeping and clicking:  Pipistrelles. These are our most common bat but lovely to hear. There are three species of Pipistrelle in the UK and two of them were flying around the church – The Common Pipistrelle and the Soprano Pipistrelle. They look alike but as the name suggests, the Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus) has a higher-pitched call and it also has a 2 mm narrower wingspan (just over 1/16th of an inch!). They tend to set up a flight path that they repeat several times and this appeared to be making a circuit of the church, for no sooner had we tuned in to them, than they disappeared only to reappear a short while later. At the early stages of the evening there was still enough evening light to catch a glimpse of the bats as they flew past but soon it was too dark to see them and we moved on to the Millennium Green Pond.


The first problem we encountered brought to mind an old song: - “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow”! The local farmer had wisely decided to make the most of the fine weather and at nine o'clock in the evening, was mowing the meadow next to the pond making it impossible to hear the bat detectors until the tractor disappeared to the other end of the field. We, of course, were amused at the idea of him wondering what on earth a group people with powerful torches standing around the pond were up to. If he reads this he'll know now!


While we waited, John Bainbridge commented that bats were ugly little beasts and was surprised to get a retort of “No they're not – they're lovely, pretty, furry little things”. The photos below will enable you to decide for yourself.


We heard a hint of Pipistrelle and were delighted to be able to hear them catching their prey. The echolocation sounds gets shorter and shorter as the bat homes in on the insect and consequently eventually the sounds are so close together that they sound like someone 'blowing a raspberry'!


We also heard one or two other sounds that were too short to identify. However, Dave had a very expensive bat detector that recorded the sounds and he would be able to link to his computer to look at sonograms. These show the distinctive sound patterns of each bat and provide clear identification. Within a few days, Dave was able to confirm that there were three species of bat around the pond – the two Pipistrelle species and the Noctule (Nyactalus noctula) bat which likes water. The Noctule has beautiful chestnut coloured fur and is larger than the other species that we saw with a wingspan of 14 inches (350 mm). It is a fast flier as well – it can fly up to 30 miles an hour. (Pipistrelles only make it to about 10mph).


Different species of bat like to emerge from their daytime roosts at different times after dark, so after a while we returned to the churchyard to see whether any other bats had emerged. We struck lucky arriving near the porch as a series of much quieter clicks told us that a different kind of bat was about. The torches revealed them going under a tile near the porch. "Brown Long-eared Bat" said Dave. These bats have ears that are longer than their body – imagine us having 4-foot long ears! These are so sensitive that the Long-eared bats can not only hear flying insects, but also insects walking about on leaves. Dave later confirmed that as well as the Pipistrelles and Brown Long-eared Bat (Plecotus auritus), there were Noctule bats and Leisler's (Nyactalus leisleri) bats in the churchyard. The latter are quite rare and it is nice to know that we are lucky enough to have them in the village.


Eventually it was time to go home after an evening of learning about bats, looking for bats, listening to bats, discussing bats and having a pleasant stroll with friends around the churchyard and the pond.


Dave has promised that next year he will do a Moth Night which should prove equally fascinating, so watch this website.


Staffordshire Ecological Services is the consultancy arm of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. As with much wildlife, bats have their own 'conservation' group. The Bat Conservation Trust works to educate people about bats, including arranging bat walks, as well supporting local bat groups and scientists, providing advice to developers and 'lobbying' on behalf of bats. 


(and now see the photos below of the Clifton Campville Millenium Green bat species). . . . . .




Common Pipistrelle

(Pipistrellus pipistrellus)

(The Soprano Pipistrelle looks the same!)




Brown Long-eared Bat

(Plecotus auritus)







Noctule Bat

(Nyactalus noctula)






Leisler's Bat

(Nyactalus leisleri)