Moonlight shadows

Head to your local canal or waterway on a dusky evening and there’s a good chance you’ll have a spooky encounter with one of our native bats. As our ecologist, Laura Mulholland explains, canals and rivers are a food and drink superhighway for these fascinating creatures. And right around the country our waterways are helping bats to thrive.

A brown long eared bat flies straight towards the camera Water is a wonderful source of food and navigation guide for many species of bat such as this brown long eared bat © Daniel Hargreaves

When the sun goes down, the waterways are transformed into an action-packed hunting ground for bats. “With the canals, we have this fantastic linear network of waterways that are all connected up across the country,” Laura explains. “They give the bats food and are also a great, safe route for them to fly along to get to different places, sort of like a motorway network.”

The bats really travel around, often covering long distances. “Around the Bath and Bradford-on-Avon area on the Kennet & Avon, there's a special site where there are lots of underground mines and caves,” says Laura. “We've put rings on bats there that turned up at Chilmark Quarries and Mottisfont, a special area of conservation which is more than 50km away. It’s quite clear that the corridors that they're following are the rivers and canals between those two spots.”

Britain is home to 18 native species of bat. One of the most common to be found on our waterways is Daubenton’s Bat, also called the water bat, for good reason. “Their rear feet are really big proportionately to their size and quite hairy,” says Laura. “They use them to scoop up insects into their tail membrane, which is just like a shovel, then they'll pass them up from the water surface straight into their mouths whilst they're still flying along. It’s incredible how dexterous they are.”

A Daubenton's bat on the wing looking straight at the camera © Daniel Hargreaves Daubenton’s bats are expert water-dippers, picking out bugs to eat on the wing © Daniel Hargreaves

Just as incredible is their echolocation system. “It is so finessed that they can see things that are the width of one human hair,” Laura explains. The Natterer’s bat is known to home in on spiders and skilfully pluck them from their webs.

But it’s not just spiders that tickle the bats’ tastebuds. “A lot of them are really specialized to catch moths which we don't see so much during the day,” Laura tells us. The Greater Horseshoe bat feeds on bigger moths in particular, as well as beetles. 

If you live in the city, the bat you’re most likely to see is the Common Pipistrelle, a tiny bat comfortable in urban surroundings. “They’ve evolved really well alongside us,” says Laura.

Most bats avoid built up areas due to light pollution, but the common pipistrelle has adapted to take advantage of the insect food attracted to street and garden lights. Laura even has resident Pipstrelles of her own. “I've got them roosting in my house in a box that my husband built.”

A pipistrelle bat flying past trees Pipistrelle bat © Daniel Hargreaves

However, not everyone shares Laura’s enthusiasm for bats. “It’s one of the big myths that they’re blind and they'll fly into your hair. They've actually got really good eyesight,” Laura explains, before tackling a more serious bat misconception. “There's no risk of people in the UK catching COVID from our bats. Quite the opposite in fact. For the whole of last year, we've not been able to do any of our normal bat monitoring because even the smallest risk of us passing it to them, and then devastating their populations, isn’t worth taking.”

In the meantime however, our volunteers at Saul Junction on the Gloucester & Sharpness canal, have been busy creating new bat roosting sites. They’ve cleared out, cleaned up and protected a former WWII pillbox and put in bat boxes to create the new sites. It’s just the kind of habitat creation work our volunteers and ecologists are doing for bats right around the country on canals.

There’s still time to seek out these much maligned and under-appreciated creatures before they hibernate for the winter. However, boaters are unlikely to spot bats roosting in canal tunnels during the day. “Most of our bat species will tuck themselves away quite deep into gaps, cracks and crevices in tunnels, so that they can be away from temperature changes and from being disturbed,” says Laura. The best time to spot bats by water is at dusk in dry, still conditions. There’s every chance of a thrilling encounter, if you hang around for long enough.

Last date edited: 20 October 2021

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