Bats – the farmer’s friend

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Bernie Commins highlights the importance of bats in our ecosystem and why they are our farmers’ friends.

As a child, Batman was a household name. Saturday morning’s ritual featured gluing ourselves to the TV, watching Adam West, as the caped crusader, ‘kaboom’ and ‘kerpow’ Gotham City to safety. But West’s on-screen prowess and goodness certainly did nothing for the reputation of the common bat that swooped and swirled around our moonlit skies in south Tipperary! 

My mother feared them – mostly that they would stick in her hair, and a shaving would ensue. Twilight strolls were comical, at times, as she ducked and stooped out of the way of these fearsome hair-hunting creatures.

My mother was not alone, however; bats are probably some of the most misunderstood mammals in the world. The myths associated with these furry little fliers are plentiful but beneficial bats tales? Not so much! Count Dracula has a lot to answer for! China, however, considers bats as symbols of good luck and happiness. A leaf should be taken from their bat book!

According to Bat Conservation International, there are more than 1,300 species of bats in the world – which, by the way, would be a much different place without them. They are prominent players in our ecosystem as pollinators, seed dispersers and pest controllers.

“Bats consume vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests,” says Bat Conservation Ireland.

“Others pollinate many valuable plants, ensuring the production of fruits that support local economies, as well as diverse animal populations. Fruit-eating bats in the tropics disperse seeds that are critical to restoring cleared or damaged rainforests. Even bat droppings (called guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertiliser. Guano is a major natural resource worldwide, and, when mined responsibly with bats in mind, it can provide significant economic benefits for landowners and local communities.”

Pest control

Here, in Ireland, there are nine bat species belonging to two families, according to Irish NGO, Bat Conservation Ireland (BCI). These bats make up one third of our land species. Eight species are from the Vespertilionidae family: common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus); soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus); Nathusius’ pipistrelle (Pipistrellus nathusii); Leisler’s bat (Nyctalus leisleri); brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus); Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii); whiskered bat (Myotis mystacinus); Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri); with one species from the Rhinolophidae family: the lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros).

Bats, as natural pest controllers, are farmers’ friends. They are considered to be one of the most ‘economically important non-domesticated animals’ according to BCI, which says that in the US, bats save the agricultural industry at least €3.7 billion dollars, annually. The bats eat the crop-munching insects, so the farmers do not have to apply as much pesticides.

While data on how Irish bats fit into this equation is not currently available, BCI says that our two smallest species – both pipistrelles, whose populations are approximately one million each – consume their own body weight in insects each night! This would be a 5kg feast per night multiplied by two million. That comes to approximately 10,000kg of insects in just one night!

GLAS and bat conservation
The conservation of bats became an objective of the Green Low-carbon Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS) in 2015, to improve biodiversity in the farming landscape, replace habitats lost through changes in farming practice and because bats play an important role in farm pest management as they feed on midges, flies and other potential pest species.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine makes four recommendations for the conservation of bats on Irish farms:

  • Install new bat roost boxes in groups of at least three boxes per tree or three boxes per post or three boxes per building. The boxes in each location must face in different directions. Bat roost boxes must be in place by March 31.
  • The maximum number of Bat boxes is 15, in groups of a minimum of three boxes per tree or per post or per farm building.
  • The location must be clearly marked on the map and must be maintained in the same position for the duration of the contract.
  • Box(es) can be made from wood or woodcrete and must be draught free.

Protection

Protection of bats in Ireland has an Irish and European layer. Under the Wildlife Act 1976 and its amendment in 2000, it is an offence to intentionally disturb, injure or kill a bat, or disturb its resting place, and any work on a roost must be carried out with the advice of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

The EU Habitats Directive adds another protective strand for all bats, but particularly for the lesser horseshoe bat which is found only in the Republic of Ireland. According to BCI: “The level of protection offered to lesser horseshoe bats, effectively, means that areas important for this species are designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). For all bats, it is an offence to disturb, injure or kill bats or disturb or destroy their roosts.”

However, this does not mean, for example, that essential roof repairs cannot be carried out because bats are present in an attic, says BCI. “In general, it would mean that roof repair works should be carried out outside the active season for bats while they are not present, and using materials that are suitable for use in a bat roost. Roost entrances/exits also need to be retained. It is important to discuss any plans for work on a bat roost prior to commencement with the statutory authority responsible for bat conservation.

Learn about bats: new website 

Bat Conservation Ireland (BCI) has created a new website for primary school children and their teachers called Learn About Bats.

The website includes beautiful illustrations from award-winning children's author and illustrator Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and photographs by Paul van Hoof.

It centres around a number of bat fact pages, each of which addresses a specific topic, such as 'Irish Bats', 'Are Bats Blind?' or 'Are Bats Good or Bad?' These bat fact pages also have downloadable worksheets for follow-on work in the classroom.

The website was funded by donations, grant assistance from the Irish Environmental Network and Bat Conservation Ireland's own funds

Dr Niamh Roche from BCI said: "Teachers can find it difficult to access information about Irish bats to share with their students. We wanted to create an easy-to-navigate website that could be used for SESE/STEM lessons at primary level, or perhaps in association with a school's Green Flag for Biodiversity. Also, it is great to be able to share accurate bat facts and to be able to dispel myths about bats.”

Considering bats on your farm
Bat Conservation Ireland has drawn up some guidelines for encouraging bats to farmland using bat boxes.

  • Hedgerows and trees – most bat species prefer to fly along hedgerows and tree lines. Hedgerows that are allowed to grow over 2m in height are more useful for bats. Gaps of greater than 10m can be problematic for some species to cross.
  • Wetlands, ponds and streams – these habitats are important for insects. Infilling, draining or pollution of these habitats lessen their usefulness for bats.
  • Old farm buildings – bats often roost in old stone buildings, sometimes in crevices and cracks in the stone work.
  • Dead standing timber can be used by bats for roosting so should be retained where it does not pose a risk to traffic or safety. 

Source: Bat Conservation Ireland.

Tags: conservation wildlife