Twilight Natural History in County Cork
Text & illustrations © Conor Kelleher
Bats! The soulmates of Count Dracula and spawn of the devil! Shadowy, secretive creatures of the night, thatflit and dive with sudden zest, swooping over frightened heads, the fluttering of their wings marking their swift passing. "They’ll get caught in your hair!" someone shouts, as squeals of fear split the night and all break into a panic- stricken run. The irony is that most of these petrified individuals are men!
The general public’s attitude towards bats is undergoing a certain renaissance at present. Thankfully, scenes of the variety portrayed above are now becoming less frequent as more people become aware of the lives of bats and the important role that they perform in our countryside.
Recognising, in 1976, that bat numbers were dwindling due to lack of roosts, poisoning by pesticides, disturbance, habitat destruction and loss of insect prey, all species were given special protection under the Wildlife Act. Since then, Ireland has ratified two international wildlife laws, in relation to bats, these are known as the 'Bern' and 'Bonn Conventions'.
Educating the public and roost protection have become priorities in the race to protect our bat species. Many advances have been made in changing the bat’s image as a thing of evil (promoted for years in the horror film industry) to a more realistic view of a clean, timid and intelligent creature. The old bat myths such as "becoming caught in hair", "living in belfries" and being "as blind as a bat", are finally being replaced by a growing knowledge of the uniqueness of these small mammals.
There are approximately 1,100 species of bats throughout the world, each occupying a particular niche in its surroundings. Some feed on fruit, nectar or pollen and, by so doing, they inadvertently help to pollinate trees such as the banana and also disperse the seeds of the rainforests. While others prey on fish, frogs or smaller bats and the three South and Central American vampire bats specialise in lapping up animal and bird blood. Most are insect eaters, as are all the European species, catching vast quantities each night. The smallest mammal in the world is the bumble bee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) of Thailand and the largest bats can have a wingspan of two metres.
As these discoveries come to light, so too does the plight of bats and some Irish species are now considered internationally important. One of these is the lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros). One of its more impressive abodes is Carriganassa Castle, in Kealkil. Here, along with Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri), the Lesser Horseshoe spends the summer nights, secure in its fortified haven.
As dusk arrives, the bats stir within the sandstone walls, leaving the roost to hunt amongst the trees that stretch along the Owvane River. They are after spiders, beetles, moths and craneflies. Caught on the wing or picked from the ground, large prey is carried to a perch where it is consumed. The inedible parts fall to the ground beneath to remain as a sign to the passing amateur naturalist as to the previous night’s activity.
Larger than the lesser horseshoe, Natterer's bat is a 'Red Data Book' species, giving it an undetermined status in Ireland. It is thought that the national population is in the region of 1,200 animals. It prefers old stone-built buildings and a large castle keep is ideal. To the visitor, the random scattering of bat droppings look similar to that of mice but those stuck to the vertical walls suggest otherwise.
Also in the castle courtyard, are the common (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and soprano (P. pygmaeus) which weigh as little as 4 grams; about the same as ten paperclips. Even so, they can still manage to capture as many as 3,000 insects each night. Found throughout Ireland, they are the species with which everyone is familiar as they fly at head height so are easier to see.
An excellent area in which to watch pipistrelles is The Gearagh, near Macroom. Here, over the stumps of the old oak forest, the bats perform their nightly somersaults and aerial gymnastics with practised ease. Both pipistrelle bats are successful because they have learned to exploit modern buildings and, although found in some historical sites, they are more commonly discovered in new houses, usually roosting in the eaves or behind barge boards. Seldom entering attics, the colony is often in residence for several years without the owner’s knowledge.
Bats are unrelated to rodents so they do not gnaw wood or electric cables. Their droppings, being made up of insect remains such as the scales from moths’ wings, are quite harmless. Also, unlike birds, they never bring in nesting materials, they just squeeze into, or hang from, whatever is available. Squeeze being the operative term as they can fit through a 12mm gap!
The Gearagh is also home to the brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus). This is our second most common species, although this is a misleading term as it is estimated that the total population is only eight per cent of that of the pipistrelles. The outstanding feature of this species is its ears which are almost as long as its body.
Bats use a type of sonar, called echolocation, to orientate and locate their prey. They send out a series of clicks, which rebound off objects, so the bat can build up an "audio" picture of its surroundings. This system is extremely sensitive. Most bats shout out their sounds through an open mouth (some at 110 decibels, the equivalent of a jet engine). A few, like the brown long-eared bat, use their noses to whisper instead of shouting. Hence the need for the huge ears as it needs to hear the extremely quiet echoes.
The long-eared bat gleans its prey from the foliage of trees and shrubs. It can hover briefly while it picks off a choice moth or spider and is often attracted to the moths drawn to the windows of a well lit house. Taking the unlucky insect to a well used perch, the bat consumes the juicy bodies, leaving the wings to fall to the ground below.
Long-eared bats also frequent the grounds of the world famous Blarney Castle. The gardens, originally laid out in the 18th-century, cover over 400 acres and, with mature trees and still waters, offer a habitat that bats cannot resist. The abundant aquatic insects here also attract one of our easier to recognize species, Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii). This species skims the surface of the water, like a small hovercraft, taking emerging mosquitoes, caddis flies and moths. Often found in tree roosts it prefers underground sites, such as icehouses, in which to spend the winter months. However, before hibernation, bats’ thoughts turn to other things, namely love.
Part of Blarney Castle and its gardens
Irish bats are unusual in that, unlike most mammals, they mate in the autumn. The male bat hangs in a prominent position and calls to the females who oblige him with a visit and then never see him again. In this way, the male mates with up to twenty females. The female stores the sperm in her body until the following year when she will give birth to a single baby. This slow reproduction rate is offset by increased longevity. Bats are known to live over twenty years which is quite remarkable for such small creatures.
The Daubenton’s bats use the castle’s dungeons as a nighttime resting place. Here, they snuggle together for warmth, forming a cosy, furry cushion, with those on the outside trying their best to move into the middle of the bunch for more heat. This ‘King of the Castle’ game is accompanied by much scolding from those ousted from their comfy inner position.
A few short miles west of Castletown Berehaven, Puxley Manor’s impressive facade has been colonized by Ireland’s largest bat species: Leisler’s bats (Nyctalus leisleri). This species is a high flyer, with long, narrow wings built for speed. Although common in Ireland, it is extremely rare throughout Europe so the Irish population is, therefore, very important. The Leisler’s droppings, which cover the floor of the manor, are almost as impressive as their surroundings.
The ruins of Puxley Manor
The faecal pellets of bats can be used to identify the particular species and no self respecting bat enthusiast travels without a random sample secreted about their person!
The very dark tunnel beneath the Great Hall lends a certain atmosphere to thoughts of the bats that hang up here to feed at night. They may have been doing so when John Puxley was shot here in 1754. Perhaps they also fluttered around the new, castellated extension which was built in the early 19th century. Were they present when the mansion was burned, during the troubles, in August 1921? One can only ponder.
Knowing, as one walks around Gougán Barra, Kilcolman, Coolkellure and Dukes Wood, or the castles of Glengarriff, Carrigadrohid or Barryscourt, that these habitats and stoney edifices have served as bat haunts for centuries and even now harbour some of nature’s most maligned and misunderstood creatures, adds to the uniqueness of the site, for bats also, are perfect examples of "living history".