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Fight to save the bats is in full flight

PUBLISHED: 17:24 14 October 2009 | UPDATED: 09:10 12 August 2010

THEY have inspired books and films, often in Halloween tales of House of Horrors, creating ghoulish myths and inspiring outright fear in some. But the reality is that bats are under threat because their habitats are gradually being eroded with the growth

THEY have inspired books and films, often in Halloween tales of House of Horrors, creating ghoulish myths and inspiring outright fear in some.

But the reality is that bats are under threat because their habitats are gradually being eroded with the growth of housing and urban development.

Now, a major project is underway to preserve one of Britain's most secretive and endangered creatures.

Count Bat is an initiative launched last month by The Bat Conservation Trust with a £596,000 Heritage Lottery grant, to help stop the mammal's decline and prevent rarer species becoming extinct in the UK.

It is appealing to residents to turn detective and be on the look out for different species, and then to log any sightings on their website.

The valuable information will be collected by experts and used to focus resources and provide an insight into the creature's habitats.

Far from being blood-sucking vampires, bats in Britain feast almost entirely on insects and bugs to help keep balmy summer evenings free of pesky midges.

The species that people in north Kent, Bromley and Bexley are most likely to see is the Pipistrelle, which can munch through a banquet of 3,000 midges in one night.

Weighing in at less then a pound coin at five grams, it would be the envy of the Royal Air Force with its supreme manoeuvrability.

Instead of using radio waves like an aircraft to detect objects, bats make sound waves at high frequency 'echolocation' to bounce off tiny airborne insects, getting an accurate position before snaffling them up.

Licensed bat warden Shirley Thompson, who founded the Kent Bat Group in 1983, said the public can play a key role in preserving bats simply by taking part in the Count Bat project.

She said: "All 17 species are a matter of concern, they need different places to roost throughout the year and their habitat is shrinking.

"They are incredibly mysterious, there is so much we don't know about bats. Nobody knows where the Pipistrelle goes to hibernate, they are very rarely found in hibernation.

"The great aspect to this project is it aims to engage people who haven't been involved with bats before. Residents can help by spotting bats, then we can start to find answers as to why they are in certain areas, and more importantly, not in others."

A Pipistrelle has three varieties: Common, Nathusius and Soprano - aptly named for its higher pitched sound at a ballistic 55khz, three times the upper range of human hearing.

They emerge at sunset, look similar in size to a Sparrow and dart about very quickly.

Mrs Thompson said: "Serotine is much less common and numbers have dropped a lot in Kent, you will only find it in the south-east. It's larger, flies more slowly and is the only bat whose wings you can see flapping so can be confused with a blackbird.

"The Noctule is also very rare, has narrow wings like a Swift, climbs very high then drops down very quickly onto its prey, eating things like beetles."

Bats can be heard making social chatter through squeaking noises and in autumn when males are seeking females.

Females seek out warm places to suckle an infant, like most mammals normally only giving birth to one.

During winter when insects are fewer they search for places with a cool, constant temperature to hibernate and like to stick to the same spots from year to year.

Ingress Park, Greenhithe, is host to many bats that take up residence during the winter months in the historical follies.

Due to their protected status developers have to be careful not to disturb roosts.

The Ice Houses at High Elms Country Park offer a perfect hibernation point below ground with its sheltered, stable temperatures.

Deneholes are another man-made favourite for bats in the south-east with natural caves in short supply.

Vertical shafts dug for their chalk deep underground, deneholes have existed in Kent since before the Roman invasion, many dotted throughout the borough of Bexley.

Count Bat brings together the BCT, Natural England and City Bridge Trust, for a four-year project looking at engaging new audiences in bat conservation.

The project is being rolled out across England and will be managed across four regions: London and the South East, North and East of England, South West and West Midlands.

During this time the Count Bat team will be working with Kent and London bat groups to involve communities.

Chris Packham, president of BCT said: "We want people to check the skies for bats as they close their curtains on summer evenings or as they are giving the dog its evening walk in the park.

"If they see any bats then they can let us know by adding their sightings to our new Big Bat Map.

"Over the last 60 years many of our bat species have declined dramatically.

"The map is an easy way for people to get involved in helping conserve these wonderful unique creatures, in many cases they won't even need to leave their living rooms."

To get involved and log any bat sightings go to: www.bats.org.uk/ bigbatmap.

Green City Bats is another project specifically targeting London. The aim is to inform groups about bats, their presence in local areas so people can work and live more harmoniously with their furry, flying neighbours. Visit www.bats.org.uk/ greencitybats.

BAT FACTS

* The term 'blind as a bat' is inaccurate as they can see well in daylight.

* By night they use a sonar system called echolocation that can detect tiny insects, their main source of food. It sends out high frequency sound waves, 20 to 55khz depending on species, which bounce back to the bat giving an accurate location of prey.

* Britain's commonest, the Pipistrelle, weighs just 5g - less than a £1 coin - and can eat 3,000 midges in one night.

* There are 17 species of bats, that can live to be 30-years-old, found in the UK representing almost a third of all our mammal species.

* The Noctule bat, Britain's largest, shouts four times louder than the legal limit of a nightclub, measured in decibels. But the frequency is beyond the range of most humans' hearing at 20khz.

* Female bats usually have only one baby each year.

* The Brown long-eared bat can hear a ladybird walking on a leaf.

* They rarely live in belfries, much preferring somewhere quiet and free of cobwebs in the nooks and crannies of houses or trees.

* Bats do not build nests but hang upside down, their wings are supported by bones similar to those in our hands and arms with very elongated fingers.

* When there are fewer insects to eat in winter, bats hibernate.

* They have exceptional steering, even though we might not be able to see them, their sonar means they won't get caught in your hair.

* Bats need a wide choice of roost sites as requirements change with the season.

They are just as likely to choose a modern house to roost as an old one.

* Like honey bees they perform a vital role for plant pollination, including: vanilla, bananas, breadfruit, guavas, kapok, Iroko timber, balsa wood, sisal, Tequila and gum.

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