Leading Article: Time to squeak up for the misunderstood British bat

Click to follow
SILHOUETTED figures will gather this week just after sunset in Britain's woodlands and suburban gardens to stare into the darkness. Scrutinising the skies, they will tune crackling transistors to catch high-pitched transmissions from above. For these are bat people, seeking brief glimpses of nature's only flying mammal. And this is census week. As hungry bats tumble out of their favourite roosts at nightfall, mouths open to trawl the insect population, enthusiasts will be standing by to count them out and count them back in again.

It is also National Bat Week: a time to challenge what the creatures' defenders call 'batitude'. This is the irrational fear of bats engendered by a powerful combination of Transylvanian myth, Dracula films and Auberon Waugh's bat-hating polemics. Although Batman Returns has increased fascination with these tiny animals, the fear that some people have of bats remains undented.

Yet the 14 surviving species of British bat - the mouse-eared has recently been declared extinct - could hardly be more inconspicuous or less threatening to humans. A pipistrelle, the most common British bat, can fit into a matchbox and weighs as little as a new 10p piece. During a single night, this gardener's friend can eat up to 3,500 insects. Bats in the loft are no danger: they do not gnaw wood or make nests, but simply like to hang out from rafters, beneath eaves and between walls. The greatest problems are droppings and specks of urine, the bane of many a vicar's life. However, good management can ensure that bats roost in only certain parts of a building. Bat guano comprises only insect skeletons and makes excellent fertiliser.

The case against 'batitude' is not only that these mammals are little trouble. It is strengthened by their extraordinary skills, which science still barely understands. Not only do they use radar, they also have a breeding method unique to bats: females can store sperm for months until they ovulate in the spring. Babies are normally born this month and suckled through July.

So those people out this week with their bat detectors may seem faintly absurd, but their enthusiastic amateurism, a quintessential quality in British life, is helping preserve an important element of the countryside. They are as much a part of John Major's vision of England as cricket and warm beer. Their efforts highlight that bats, which are a protected species, remain vulnerable, especially at this time of the year when they are breeding. Although the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act outlaws their destruction, toxic chemicals sprayed in lofts still occasionally wipe out colonies. Destruction of hedgerows, ploughing of pasture land and use of pesticides starve bats by eliminating insect life.

In Central America, having bats in a home is considered a sign of good luck and longevity. Those who know bats often come to love them and are grateful that they are happy to cohabit with people. In Britain, careful thought about the environment will be needed to maintain this co-existence. A useful start would be to discard the old myths about these threatened mammals and accept that sometimes battiness is the best attitude.