One of the Teme Valley Wildlife Group’s 2017 Sunday outdoor meetings was expertly led by David Graham, Knighton-on-Teme’s parish footpath officer. He has a keen interest in local history and showed us, in addition to old meadows, marshy places and Worcestershire’s oldest tree, a deserted village and a disused canal tunnel. I was reminded of this lovely walk when I came upon an article by Mike Averill, our county dragonfly recorder, about a colony of bats that has made its home in the self-same tunnel. Its damp bricks have found a new use long after being abandoned as a coal route from Mamble to Tenbury.
Lesser horseshoe bats are one of Britain’s rarer bat species and we’re lucky to have them in the valley. Another thriving colony lives at the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Knapp and Papermill reserve, in an old cottage there. No-one knows why, but numbers have steadily increased over the last few decades and this has certainly been confirmed locally. From just a few individuals in 1989, in the latest survey thirty years on, 40 bats were counted in the winter roost.
Called horseshoe bats because of a horseshoe-shaped skin-flap on their noses, the lesser horseshoes are smaller than their (also rare) greater horseshoe cousins, weighing in at a mere 7 grams. They have grey-brown fur and are about 4cm long with a wingspan of 20-25cm. They are surprisingly long-lived for a small mammal and can reach an age of30 years. They roost in old buildings in summer, give birth to a single pup in June, eat insects in woods and scrubland then retire to caves, cellars or mines to see out the winter.
Identifying bat species is not an easy task for the casual observer. They emerge at dusk, fly fast and low, and are not amenable to examination through a pair of binoculars. The commonest countryside bats are pipistrelles, similar in size to the lesser horseshoes; noctules, which are larger; and long-eared bats, which are medium sized. Noting the length of time since sunset, studying the type of flight pattern and using a bat-detector tuned to a specific frequency to pick up their echolocation calls, are the ways experts can recognise them on the wing.
The little pipistrelle bat visits gardens and has acquired the moniker “flittermouse”. These animals do not get entangled in people’s hair, as old folklore suggests, but they do sometimes fly through open windows. This is usually in the summer when young bats are learning to echolocate. I’ve previously taken calls from surprised Teme valley residents when they’ve come upon an unexpected visitor in the upstairs bathroom. We should welcome them all, because generally they’re having a hard time to survive, even though our local lesser horseshoe colony appears to be bucking the trend.
Now, what’s the best way to hold a bat? By the handle. A Halloween joke I couldn’t resist!