Tawny Clark answers a bat call from a Pipistrelle in distress
The pillar-box-red Bakelite phone is suddenly aglow and ringing frantically off the hook. ‘Holy Tintinnabulation!’
Without delay, I (metaphorically) descend the golden pole, don my mask, cape and figure-hugging suit, and tyre-squeal from the secret Batcave (behind Henrhyd Falls – but don’t tell anyone).
This is an emergency. There’s no time to lose. Do I sing, ‘nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, Batman,’ on the way? No comment.
It’s mid-afternoon and fellow school-mum, Marie, has discovered a bat on the cycle track nearby.
Being at risk of predation during the day, bats are usually tucked quietly away during daylight hours. Finding one could mean sickness, injury, or roost disturbance.
Whichever it is, they’ll need help. If there’s no obvious sign of injury, a bat should be kept safe and released after dusk.
Otherwise, you can call the National Bat Helpline to find a bat carer in your area or speak to a local vet or animal rescue centre.
This time of year, it’s not uncommon for new-born pups to be found, so please keep your eyes peeled.
There’s a minimal risk of bats in Britain carrying rabies viruses called European Bat Lyssaviruses (EBLV). To date, from the 15,000 specimens examined, less than forty have tested positive for EBLV nationwide.
But, like most animals, bats may bite if they feel threatened, or simply scratch unintentionally, so thick gloves are always best practice as these viruses spread via saliva and can enter our bodies through broken skin.
It goes both ways – gloves reduce the risk of bats catching human diseases too.
With Covid not looking likely to disappear anytime soon, we’re also advised to wear masks when handling bats.
In this case, the resourceful Marie improvised and used a dock leaf to move the hapless bat off the busy track and into the undergrowth.
It’s important to note that all species of bat in the UK (along with their roosts) are legally protected from disturbance; although you are allowed to help a bat in trouble, in order to assist it.
Unfortunately, returning from her dog walk, Marie found the bat had crawled back onto the track, and called me. Time to save the day.
Armed with gardening gloves and a shoe box containing a flannel (any small box is fine – just make breathing holes in the lid with a skewer or pencil, and put in a piece of clean cloth, or tea towel for the bat to hide beneath), I jog along the track to where Marie diligently stands guard.
I’m not a moment too soon.
A cyclist whizzes past in single-minded pursuit of a Strava pb – regardless of toddlers on balance bikes, horses, elderly walkers, anyone on this multi-use track (which is NOT a racetrack), and in this case, bats!
Fortunately, Batilda the Common Pipistrelle has a guardian angel in the form of Marie.
Safely transported home, I offer Batilda a drink of water using a soft paintbrush. Their tiny pink tongue nips in and out, in and out, lapping up the liquid like the minutest toy dog breed you could imagine. It’s quite possibly the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.
Thirst quenched, I carefully place the bat back in the box with a small jam-jar lid containing a little water (plastic milk bottle lids are ideal) and place it in a cool, quiet room until evening.
Later, Marie comes over with her son – who sports an enviable Chewbacca onesie – to watch the highly anticipated release. It’s rather late for a school night, but we all gather excited, and expectant, in the garden for this momentous occasion.
Unfortunately, Batilda hasn’t read the memo. When the release doesn’t go to plan, the children quickly lose interest and migrate to the trampoline.
The novelty of having a friend over and bouncing about in pyjamas in the dark is apparently more of a draw than a bat who appears reluctant, or unable to fly.
The following morning I’m out at ridiculous o’clock on a dawn bat survey. Dropping me home around 6am, my colleague – an experienced bat handler – gives the bat the once over and tells me it’s male (I’ll have to rethink Batilda).
She examines him and finds no obvious sign of injury. It could be an illness, or he may just be too weak to fly. Weighing only four grams every feed counts, and winged invertebrates can be hard to come by in our increasingly sterile, pesticide-laden environment.
She warns me the survival rate for grounded bats is only around 50%, but, despite the ominous failure to launch the previous evening, I remain optimistic.
It’s an agonising wait for the local pet shop to open at 9am, but with suitably nutritious live mealworms finally acquired, I set about trying to fatten up Batilda (the names already stuck).
They’re too big, so I try half mealworms, and innards instead. I hold them to his mouth with plastic tweezers from the children’s science kit.
He tucks in with gusto. Once I’m over the initial stomach-churning bit, I start to appreciate just what an incredible experience this truly is.
I’m completely captivated by every movement, the articulation of his jaw, how he manoeuvres his thumbs and toes to grip my glove, the shape of the tragus inside his ear, his magnificent, tissue-paper-thin wing membranes.
I’ve surveyed bats for many years, but never before had the extraordinary privilege of holding a live one in my hand.
At first, I’m a child, in possession of some long-coveted object. A secret, selfish treasure. He is my precious. But within seconds I grow up, into the nurturing mother, exhausted, but flooded with relief as my baby takes its critical, life-sustaining feed.
As much as I long to spend the entire day cuddling and marvelling at him, I prudently (somewhat begrudgingly) limit my interactions.
Offering water and mealworms every few hours, I find myself transitioning through a whole host of emotions over the course of the day. The action of lifting the box lid morphs from Christmas morning over-excitement, and hopeful optimism, to trepidation, into worry, concern.
With each successive feed, Batilda’s disinterest grows. By the evening he no longer opens his mouth to feed. His tiny, furry body still twitches as his heart beats, but it’s weak. His tiny tongue no longer laps the water.
In desperation, I take him outside after dark; but I already know he won’t fly from my outstretched hand. I sit up late, staying with Batilda so he’s not alone. Gently, I close the lid and cry myself to sleep.
Guilt replaces everything. Guilt that I couldn’t save this tiny, precious creature.
The following morning, I examine the body for signs of life. I kid myself he might be in torpor, but it’s clear he’s dead. I place him in a small, sealed container in the fridge.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) run passive testing for rabies on dead bats. Numbly, I apply online for their free postage kit. When it arrives, I slide Batilda’s tiny, rigid body into the plastic tube.
I complete the short form and place it along with the tube into the padded envelope and seal it. Farewell my remarkable little friend.
I’ll hear back only if he tests positive for EBLV. I never do. Batilda becomes just another statistic, 15,001.
Despite the anguish, the heartache that Batilda didn’t make it, if half of bats found on the ground do survive, it’s always worth trying.
If I get another chance, I’d do it all again. As a species so threatened, every bat counts.
For more information on bats visit the Bat Conservation Trust.
If you discover a grounded bat, contain it, and call the National Bat Helpline on 0345 1300 228.
Tawny Clark is a writer and ecologist and more of her writing can be found here.
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