End of the horror show for bats as numbers stage dramatic comeback

After decades of decline some of Britain's most endangered bat populations appear to be making a comeback.

Ever since Bela Lugosi flapped his cloak and flew off into the night as Count Dracula, the humble bat has suffered an image problem of almost catastrophic proportions, and these environmentally sensitive mammals have suffered as a result.

Throughout the 20th century, all 17 species of bat found in Britain saw their numbers fall dramatically as changes in farming methods, loss of habitat and human ignorance played a part in their downfall.

However, according to the latest figures from the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT), it appears the tiny creatures are at last managing to shed their ghoulish image. Through a concerted effort to create greater public awareness of bats as gentle, harmless creatures, as well as the protection of more roosting sites and improved agricultural practices, the BCT says there has been a slight rise in at least four bat species - the lesser horseshoe bat, Daubenton's bat, Natterer's bat and the common pipistrelle bat.

BCT volunteers provide free advice to householders who find they may have bats hanging in their lofts, and run an out-of-hours service for the National Bat Helpline, offering free information and advice, leading to more understanding and better conservation.

"This is good news for some of our bats and a testament to the enormous effort of thousands of volunteers all over the country," said Amy Coyte, chief executive of the Bat Conservation Trust.

"The excellent, statistically defensible data enables us to measure progress in our efforts to conserve these wonderful animals, which contribute hugely to our natural heritage."

In an effort to educate the public, the BCT has worked hard to improve bats' image.

"A lot of people are wary if they find out they are sharing their homes with bats, mainly because of the myths that they are blind and fly into people's hair, or suck blood," said Jaime Eastham, a spokeswoman for the BCT.

"Bats are not blind, they have a good sense of direction. The only bats that drink blood live in South America where they feed on livestock such as cattle by scratching the animal's skin and lapping up the blood - there's no sucking involved."

However the BCT, which has been keeping track of bat populations since 1997 through its National Bat Monitoring Programme, believes there is still a long way to go before bats are out of danger.

"British bats have suffered severe declines during the last century, and these population increases are tiny compared to the numbers we have lost. We remain very concerned about a number of species, particularly the brown long-eared bat," said Ms Coyte.

The trust believes bats are a good indicator of the state of the British environment as a whole, as they are top predators of common nocturnal insects that are sensitive to insecticide and pesticide use, land use practices, water quality and also night-time temperatures.

"Bats are sensitive indicators and they are just as likely to go down as they are to go up unless we keep up the work that is being done," said Chris Packham, president of the trust.

Ruling the roost

* The lesser horseshoe bat, which has shown a 6.3 per cent population rise, is confined to Wales, western England and western Ireland. It often roosts in the roofs of large houses in summer, hibernating in caves in winter. It can live 20 years.

* Daubenton's bat, which has seen a 3 per cent annual increase, is widespread. It takes insects from water with its large feet.

* Natterer's bats have risen by 5.6 per cent, though are uncommon. It roosts in old stone buildings and large barns.

* The pipistrelle has seen the largest increase of 7.9 per cent. It is the most common bat in the UK androosts in buildings and trees.