Why are the British so batty about bats?

To many of us they are the stuff of vampire-filled nightmares. And yet thousands of Britons have volunteered to protect them.
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Bats have had more than their fair share of detractors over the years. Bram Stoker didn't do much for the PR effort when he sealed their gruesome place in popular folklore in Dracula – irreversibly fuelling man's nascent horror at the prospect of one swooping into one's hair on a summer's evening.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that the announcement this week that The Heritage Lottery Fund was to donate nearly £600,000 to promote bat awareness in Britain reopened some of the old passions surrounding these interesting mammals.

Despite the horror film myths, Britain has the most comprehensive network of bat volunteers in the world. The world's only flying mammal commands a fierce loyalty and commitment unrivalled among devotees of often more cuddly species.

And they are in no doubt as to where the blame for bats' bad press lays. "Among the general public there is a hesitancy based on misconceptions and misunderstandings," said Jamie Eastham of the Bat Conservation Trust. "They are creatures of the night and people don't get to see them that often. When they do it is likely to be in a film where they are coming to suck your blood or turn into vampires."

In fact, bats were only grafted on to the much older European vampire tradition relatively late in life, largely thanks to Stoker's classic published in 1890.

Indeed the German Expressionists preferred rats to bats when they bought the blood sucker to the cinema in Nosferartu three decades later although Bela Lugosi revived the bat as bad guy to enduring and detrimental affect a few years later with his definitive big screen Dracula.

Yet ignorance still exists. In 1981, when bats were finally afforded the long sought after legal protection, bat-hater Auberon Waugh wrote: "I do not suppose there are more than a couple of hundred people (who) could give a hoot if every bat in the kingdom dropped down dead. I, for one, would rejoice."

It is the kind of attitude that is dying out, albeit slowly, say bat lovers. But the creatures continue to be tormented. Most often the culprits are builders, responsible for two-thirds of the 170 incidents recorded in the last three years.

Each of the cases is rigorously investigated by the Bat Conservation Trust and its volunteers, yet out of these only five successful prosecutions have been brought. Despite a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment and a potential £5,000 penalty, courts have ordered transgressors of wildlife and habitat laws protecting bats to pay just £3,400 in fines.

Bat numbers declined dramatically over the 20th century, due mainly to habitat destruction and the loss of ancient woodland and old buildings.

Wildlife groups point out that bats cause little or no damage to homes when they take up residence. Able to eat up to 3,000 insects a night, they also act as extremely effective pest controllers.

Volunteers working for Natural England are more than willing to advise on what you should do if you have bats. It was not always thus. Natural history records describe swarms of pippistrelles, the most common bat of Britain's 17 resident species, swarming around the dome of St Paul's. Horseshoe bats were once a common site in London parks though now can only be found in the South-west.

Partly because of decline and partly because of their nocturnal hunting patterns, encounters with bats have become increasingly rare in the modern world. The best way to see one is to take part in one of the many bat walks organised each month.

Nick Tomlinson, a bat volunteer from Weymouth in Dorset, says there is a strong bond among bat lovers. "We are all slightly mad and we get a great rapport going when we meet up for bat box inspections."

"They are the most amazing creatures. They are beautiful to look at and it is amazing to think we cannot hear them or see them unless we have a bat detector. Yet if we walk down a country lane they are all around us," said Mr Tomlinson.

Though most commonly thought of as some kind of flying mouse, bats it seems, are more closely related to man. A bat's wing is similar to the human hand, with skin stretched over the bones to create a unique wing unlike any bird. They can live for up to 40 years and give birth to just a single offspring each year.

Their echo-location system, which allows them to swoop with pin point accuracy into the clouds of insects that swarm around humans at dusk, remains a wonder of the natural world. They have also been here for a very long time.

Mr Tomlinson said: "Possibly, they once flew around the heads of dinosaurs which is a mind-blowing thought. Even people who say they don't like bats, when we take them out to meet them they stand there with grins that if they got any bigger would split their heads in two. It is a fantastic way to make people realise there is nothing to be afraid of."

The Heritage Lottery Fund money will enable some 5,000 volunteers to work with people who normally have no access to wildlife. A four-year project called England Bat Count, will train volunteers how to identify bats – often a difficult task when they fly at high speed through dusk.

But establishing exact figures on the UK population is difficult. Philip Briggs, of the National Bat Monitoring Programme estimates there are three million of the most common type of UK bat, though much of the rest is guess work.

"We don't really know how many we have lost and are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence. A few species seem to be picking up but there is still a lot of ignorance based on superstition associated with horror and witchcraft," he said.

Bat box

* Bats are the only mammals in the world that are naturally capable of flight.

* Some species are cannibalistic; the Spectral and the Ghost Bat both feed on other bats.

* With about 1,100 species of bat, there are so many varieties they make up 20 per cent of all mammal species.

* The bat is sacred in West Africa and Tonga, where it is considered a physical manifestation of a separable soul.

* Females usually only give birth to one offspring a year, but mothers gather their young together in 'nursery roosts'.

* Only 0.5 per cent of bats carry the rabies disease.