The British government passed the first laws protecting bats in 1982. Additional rules followed, such that you have to have bat surveys done before you can develop rural properties or renovate many older properties. The goal was to protect bats.
There are sixteen species of bats native to the UK. Many people think these extensive protections are unnecessary because they see common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle bats almost everywhere. These two species are not in any danger. They account for roughly eighty percent of all bats in the UK. However, there are fourteen other species of bats in the United Kingdom, and they are in far worse shape. But are bats facing a hidden extinction crisis?
The answer is definitely a yes when it comes to the greater mouse-eared bat. The species was declared extinct in 1990. A single young male was found in 2002, and rare individuals have been found hibernating in Sussex every year since. The greater mouse-eared bat is not just the most endangered bat in the UK, it is also the largest bat species in the country. They have wingspans of up to 45 centimeters or 18 inches. This is separate from the single specimen of the Geoffroy’s bat found in the UK; that one seems to be alone bat or vagrant blown here from the Continent.
The grey long-eared bat is only found in a few colonies in southern England. They prefer woodlands and warm valleys. Grey long-eared bats are found in other parts of Europe but are endangered in the UK.
The Barbastelle bat is only found in south and central England and Wales. It is so rare that we don’t really know how many there are. The Greater horseshoe bat has distinctive “noseleaves” that are used for echolocation. They are one of the larger bat species in the UK. They are also one of the most threatened. Surveys suggest that their numbers have declined but as much as ninety percent over the past one hundred years. Environmentalists think that only a few thousand of them remain.
What about the other species of bats in the UK? Bat surveys are done by companies like Arbtech Consulting to identify where bats live and estimate their numbers. Bat population surveys have found that the number of bats in many regions has fallen by half or more.
This doesn’t mean locals are necessarily killing them the way people burned buildings full of bats to kill them based on fears that they’d spread disease or because of their association with vampirism. Bats are adversely affected by changes in the environment. British bats are insect eaters and navigate by echolocation. If you pave large sections of the ground, they are confused by the flat reflective surface. They may not cross it, and that can cut them off from their food sources. If the forested areas are cut down, they lose roosting sites as well as food-rich environments. When meadows are plowed to create crop rows, bats lose another food source. Hedgerows provide roosting sites and navigational aids to bats. They’re so important that it is now illegal to remove them without permission. You can also run into problems selling a house that has bats.
Some bat species are more sensitive than others. For example, one British bat species only lives in the old-growth forests. It doesn’t just need stands of trees in the middle of farmland but large swaths of forest. It doesn’t navigate by using a few trees in a stand as a marker but the gnarled surface of the largest trees as a kind of guidepost. This means that efforts to remove gnarled wood on large trees by popular hiking trails can adversely affect bats, though the trees themselves remain.