There are approximately 1,100 species of bat currently known to science. They represent the largest group of mammals after the rodents, to which, they are not related. Their origins are still unknown.
Ireland is extremely important when it comes to these small mammals and all Irish species are protected by law. We have the largest national population of lesser horseshoe bat in Europe and our population of Leisler's bat is also of international importance. Ireland has ratified two European conventions on bat conservation and is also obligated, under the European Habitats Directive, to ensure that lesser horseshoe bat foraging areas are protected.
Bats are highly specialised creatures and they find it difficult to adapt to the changes in the modern countryside. They are the only mammals capable of true flight. Each species has adapted to hunting in a different manner, whether it is 'hawking' in open air, hovering to pick an insect from a leaf, gaffing insects from the surface of water or pouncing on their prey on the ground.
The most famous bat of all, the vampire is being studied at present as it was discovered that its saliva contained an anti-coagulant which is being used to help haemophiliacs. There are actually only three species, all found in Central and South America.
All our bats eat only insects and spiders. The common Pipistrelle, with which everyone is familiar, can catch up to 3,500 midges a night! There is nothing else feeding on night flying insects and as the bats are decreasing in numbers, the amount of insects, including pests, is growing. It is estimated that bat numbers across Europe have fallen by up to 60% in the last 15 years.
The main factors for the decline are destruction of habitat and roost sites and the reduction in food sources due to lack of insects because of pesticides and insectides; also killing of bats by people.
Irish bats are very clean animals, they regularly groom and seek out clean places in which to live and they carry no known diseases. They do not build nests instead they crawl into crevices or hang from whatever is available. As they are not rodents, they have no front teeth so they do not gnaw wood or electric cables. Their use of houses is seasonal, rather like swallows; they usually arrive in April and leave in September or October.
Bats have only one baby a year and the first year of a bat's life is fraught with danger as it has to learn to fly, to avoid predators like owls and cats and it has to put on enough fat to see it through its first winter's hibernation. Most don't make it. The average lifespan in the wild is four years. In captivity bats have lived for up to 42 years!
We have ten known species in Ireland. There are bat groups in Dublin, Cork and Galway as well as Northern Ireland. These groups organise meetings,hibernation surveys, field research, bat walks, school visits etc. They also liaise with Conservation Rangers, County Councils, planners, timber treatment firms, church groups, landowners etc. to further bat conservation and education. They also give advice to householders and owners of roosts. These batty volunteers also rehabilitate grounded, orphaned and injured bats so that they can be returned to the wild. Bat groups are co-ordinated by Bat Conservation Ireland.
Bats are one of nature's wonders and I would encourage anyone to step outside as twilight settles and take a moment to appreciate the consummate skill and infinite energy of these acrobatic silhouettes. Bats need friends.
Chairman - Bat Conservation Ireland