Facts about British Bats

Scientific name: Chiroptera

At a glance

The only true flying (rather than gliding) mammals, there are more than 1,400 species of bats in the world. Ranging from the size of a queen bumblebee up to the flying foxes, huge fruit bats with 2m wingspans, bats are perhaps the second most populous non-human mammals after rodents. They make up around 20% of all mammal species worldwide and more than a quarter of all mammal species in the UK.

That last fact might surprise some people, because few of us ever see a bat and many of us might assume that they’re all the same species anyway. Surprisingly seventeen species of bat breed in the UK, at least ten have been recorded as vagrants, and one – the Greater Mouse-eared Bat – is represented by a solitary individual that’s been living on and off since 2002 in a disused railway tunnel in West Sussex .

All those species might make it seem that we are awash with bats, vast armies of  shadowy shapes flicking around the night sky, but like so many other animals in modern Britain bats are declining.

Our bats feed exclusively on insects in a wide range of habitats from wetland, woodlands, hedgerows, grassland, farmland and urban habitats. But our countryside and our towns and villages have changed hugely with sprawling urbanisation, a push for ‘tidy’, ultra-managed gardens, and a massive drive for greater food production. Populations of most species have dropped considerably because of fragmentation and loss of habitat (many old growth woodlands have been felled and hedgerows grubbed up, for example), an unprecedented crash in the number of insects (largely attributable to an enormous growth in the use of insecticides), and deliberate destruction of roosting and breeding sites. It’s estimated that the Common Pipistrelle, our commonest bat, declined by 70% between 1978 and 1993 (though with better awareness amongst the general public, legal protection, and targeted conservation, populations have started showing signs of recovery in recent years).

As we don’t really notice bats, losing them might not seem all that important, but it most certainly is. Leaving aside whether bats have the same right to exist as we do, many bats are ‘indicator species’. Declines in bat populations mirror declines in the health of our environment. Like nocturnal ‘canaries in the coal mine’ the loss of bats tell us about the loss of insects (which are the basis for the entire food chain), the loss of connected landscapes, and a gradual breaking of the natural processes that we all depend on. Whether we care very much or not about bats themselves (and we at Protect the Wild care very much), we need them.

All UK bat species and their roosts are legally protected, by both domestic and international legislation. It’s an offence to deliberately take, injure or kill a wild bat,  intentionally or recklessly disturb a bat in its roost, or deliberately disturb a group of bats. Occasional court cases involving developers make the headlines – in June 2022 two directors for a housing developer were fined £7,400 for renovating a former primary school in Monmouthshire, for example – but far more damage is being done ‘legally’

We have been promised a decade of infrastructure growth, more housing, increased food production meaning more intensifive use of agricultural land, and in September 2022 a proposal for the creation of ‘investment zones’ with loosened planning regulations which a coalition of wildlife and countryside charities described as an “unprecedented attack on nature”. Compared with one Welsh bat roost, projects like HS2, for example, was (before being partially shelved in late 2023) designed around the destruction of  5 internationally designated wildlife sites; 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest; 21 Local Nature Reserves; 693 Local Wildlife Sites; 4 Nature Improvement areas; 22 Living Landscapes and 18 Wildlife Trust Nature Reserves. Ecologists monitoring the destruction caused have recorded many examples of bat roosts being destroyed ‘under licence’ and lambasted mitigation efforts as totally inadequate.

Legal protection for bats is of course important, and the deliberate destruction of roosts would surely be more frequent without it, but if we want to save bats (and so much more else) we need to think on a far, far bigger scale.

How many times can we take ‘just’ a few trees from here, remove ‘just’ a few bat roosts from there, dig up ‘just’ a few ponds, net ‘just’ a few hedges, build houses on ‘just’ a few fields, force ‘just’ a few new roads across ‘just’ a few SSSIs or AONBs before we realise that all those ‘fews’ are adding up to irrecoverable damage and loss?