Feature: Go batty on Harpenden Goes Wild Bat Walk
PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 September 2018
I have harboured an inexplicable love of horror films from quite a young age, ever since obsessively rewatching The Little Vampire on video throughout the 00s.
For the uninitiated, this children’s “scary”-comedy classic is about a 9-year-old boy who becomes best friends with a family of vampires, who are of course complete with full bat-transformation (cinematic gold, I’m telling you).
Therefore it is maybe not surprising that it fell to me to go on a Bat Walk around Harpenden Common. Where else to finally learn about the real deal?
It become obvious very quickly, however, that any blood-sucking bat variety are very rare and certainly not in Herts.
“It is not a myth, they’re real”, our Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust guide and people and wildlife officer at Harpenden Town Council,
Heidi Mansell, exclaimed. Clarifying: “But there are only three species in the world”.
At least, she said something similar to that - I was too busy reeling from that terrifying bombshell to think straight.
The common, hairy-legged, and white-winged vampire bats can be found in the Americas, from Mexico to Brazil. A quick Google search tells me that is at least 5,000 miles from Harpenden. I can live with that, I think.
As dusk fell, me, my colleague Fraser Whieldon, and an intrepid group of bat-hunters were mainly searching for insect munching common pipistrelle.
This little bat has a wingspan of up to 25cm, is common around Britain, and emits echo location noises at about 50khz. That is 30khz above human hearing.
Heidi said: “When bats fly around, they do something very special to help them find their way around in the dark. They can’t see too well in the dark, so they need to do something else.
“They make noises out of their mouths, a bit like a scream, at really high pitches so we can’t hear them.”
Thankfully, clever bat detection devices let everyone on the walk hear when that noise within 10 metres.
Harpenden Town Council were able to buy this kit with the help of a £3,485 Tesco Bags of Help grant awarded earlier this year.
The echo location sounds like a strange flapping and a raspberry blowing noise means the bat has just found dinner. They eat around 2,000 to 3,000 bugs most evenings throughout the summer to store fat for hibernation between November and March.
However, timings depend on the weather, and a few years ago a cold March meant bats did not reemerge until April.
By this point their stores were so low bats were hunting during the day - a risky tactic with predators awake and ready to pounce.
Bats are normally nocturnal, which explains why despite being a fifth of all mammals on the planet they are hardly ever seen.
In fact, Heidi said humans are not sure where most of the roosts are: “Bats are a bit of an enigma. The number of roosts scientists have found does not reflect the number of bats we know exist.”
In spite of this, bats are declining due to the use of insecticides and modern renovations, which destroy housing crannies where bats would roost.
This is not good, Heidi explains: “They are incredibly important animals for the environment, for pollination, for insect control, and they are an indicator species - that means they give us a lot of information about if the environment is okay or not.”
Listen up chocolate or tequila lovers. About 500 plants rely on bats to pollinate, including both coco and guava.
However, common pipistrelle is not the only species native to Herts. Since 2016 the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Bat Group has set up a research program called The Hertfordshire Barbastelle Bat Project.
It aims to learn more about that rare and nearly endangered type of bat around the county.
Although I struggled to catch glimpses of the tricksy bats throughout the walk, that was down to slow reactions and darkness, and nothing to do with the very informative and thoroughly enjoyable evening.
My colleague Fraser added: “For someone whose entire knowledge of bats came from a certain Caped Crusader, I found the walk an informative and engaging way of learning about one fascinating species.
“Learning about how bats mate, find food and roost was an eye-opening experience which, if nothing else, has got to come in handy at a pub quiz sooner or later.”
This Bat Walk was part of a series of events hosted by Harpenden Town Council as part of the Harpenden Goes Wild project.
Visit www.harpenden.gov.uk for more information.