Bat follows wolf to extinction

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Environment Correspondent

Since the last British wolf was hunted to death nearly 250 years ago only one other mammal has become extinct in these islands - the mouse- eared bat.

It was Britain's largest bat, with a wing span more than a foot across. Unusually, it caught beetles and spiders on the ground as well as hunting in the air using echo-location.

It was never common here, for the United Kingdom is at the northernmost edge of its European range. The bat was only positively identified in Britain in the Fifties, and its population probably never rose to more than a few hundred.

From 1980 onwards, only two males were ever found in the UK. Each year bat conservationists would find the pair hibernating at a winter roost site near Chichester, in West Sussex, along with dozens of other kinds of bat. One of them failed to turn up in1985; the other was last seen at the roost five years later. And so, two years later, the species was declared extinct in Britain.

Now the mouse-eared bat has turned up on a list of 116 declining or endangered animal and plant species drawn up by the Biodiversity Steering Group, a committee of government scientists, academics, wildlife conservation charities and civil servants. The group has proposed rescue plans for each species and the Government will respond in the Spring.

The list of 116 includes six species which are probably or certainly now extinct in Britain. Since it has already been lost, the action plan for the mouse-eared bat is rather limited: "Prepare to launch a major conservation initiative should the species recolonise or be rediscovered."

There are no plans to reintroduce the bat artificially from its strongholds in southern and central Europe because the reasons for its extinction here are not understood.

But according to the Bat Conservation Trust, the factors which have wreaked havoc with many of Britain's 14 other bat species are probably to blame. Its hunting grounds of ancient, open woodlands and close-cropped pasture have been reduced by neglect and modern farming. Roosting sites in buildings which give shelter to hundreds of bats have been destroyed by demolition, fires and the spraying of wood preservative.

Two other British bat species are on the list of 116 - the greater horseshoe and the pipistrelle. The pipistrelle is the most common British bat with around 2 million in the country. But its numbers are believed to have fallen by 70 per cent between 1978 and 1993.

In the last few years the pipistrelle has been found to consist of two separate species living side by side. Their ultrasonic squeaks, which they use like radar to hunt flying insects, are at two different frequencies.