Why bats deserve better

How COVID tarnished the bat's reputation, and why we need to protect them
31 October 2023

Interview with 

Iain Webb, The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire


Two flying foxes roosting on a tree branch.


Finally, the animal that is maybe the most synonymous with Halloween, and one that has had a tough few years, shall we say. I’m sure most of you have twigged what it is by now, but we are of course talking about bats. To talk all about things with wings is the Wildlife Trust’s Iain Webb.

Will - Iain, thank you very much for joining me. I'm sure you are much the same as I am, but I love bats. Even if they had no use to us whatsoever, they'd still be a marvel of powered flight and echolocation. That being said, even discounting Halloween, do you think it's fair to say they've had something of an image problem particularly recently?

Iain - I think that's very fair to say, William. Very fair indeed. Unfortunately, yeah. Recent situations have meant that a bit of a misunderstanding and misplaced blame has been put at the toes or the wing tips of bats recently.

Will - It's almost unfortunate, isn't it, that because they have such a good immune system, they're immune to Ebola and COVID and stuff like that, that they act as such perfect reservoirs for passing illnesses over to us.

Iain - They can be, yeah. And when we get more engaged with our habitat and sort of interact with them more, then those risks increase. But not to say that every new virus that comes out is related to bats. It's just one thing that people tend to leap to because they're sort of synonymous with evil and nasty halloweeny things. So if you can pick on somebody, why not pick on bats

Will - Yes, and that isn't fair at all. In fact, they have immense uses, as callous as it sounds, immense uses to humans, not just to the ecosystem. Insect control. They're fantastically useful at that.

Iain - They are the primary predator of nocturnal insects throughout the globe. Really, it's quite phenomenal. There are 1400 species of bat throughout the world, and the majority of them, about 70% of them, feed on insects of different sorts. So in various places, they do have a major impact. You know, if you're talking about agricultural pests in certain areas where there's large numbers of bats, they have a massive impact, reducing the need for pesticide use on various crops. So much so that bats are actively encouraged by putting up bat houses to attract these numbers of bats to help save farmers money and reduce artificial chemicals being consumed by people and going into the wider environment. And we don't notice it, obviously because it's at night <laugh>, it's a phenomenal thing. And just relatively recently, they understand the value of having these bats is key.

Will - And ironically enough, given the bad flak they've had from COVID and Ebola and the like. In areas where you do see a bat population falling due to flooding destroying a bridge that they're nesting in or something like that, you see a rise in insect population. You see a rise in insect related illnesses.

Iain - Yeah, that's correct. Because bats are the primary predator of nocturnal insects like mosquitoes for example, if you remove that predator or reduce the numbers enormously, obviously those pest species will increase. With the climate breakdown going on and temperatures rising, then mosquito-borne diseases are spreading further north and will impact greater and greater populations in Europe and North America and North Asia. So not having bats there to reduce that impact is really serious.

Will - That obviously benefits us in our food production and our lack of getting ill. But no doubt it impacts the ecosystem as well

Iain - Definitely. Imperative, really. It's almost like bats are a keystone species being long-lived mammals that can cover quite a large part of the landscape. That loss for insect control is major, but it's also the other aspect of why bats are so important to ecosystems throughout the globe. You know, pollination and seed dispersal.

Will - You talk about food pollination, food production. Some of people's favourite foods, <laugh>, this is strong pandering now, but they are pollinated, created by bats.

Iain - That's correct, yeah. All those people who like tequila, I can imagine some nodding going on at the moment as we listen. The agave that they used to make tequila and mezcal is pollinated by the lesser long nosed bat.

Will - And chocolate as well. Chocolate and tequila. If you love chocolate and or tequila, you cannot hate bats. Despite all their uses, though, the majority of bats, if not all species of bat, are currently under threat and it's very easy to say because of climate change. But what are the main problems that bats are facing?

Iain - Well, other than climate change, <laugh>, habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, direct persecution in some cases intensification of agriculture. Local persecution, the consumption of bats as well. You know, a good source of protein. A kilo and a half of fruit bat is really quite valuable to eat for people. Direct persecution not so much these days is there's more understanding and people understand the value of bats and their essential contribution to diverse ecosystems, but also the production of food, et cetera.

Will - With all that being said, with the importance on so many levels of bats and the vulnerabilities they face, what can be done globally. And for you personally, what are the Wildlife Trusts doing to help preserve bats?

Iain - Well, I think one of the key things is spreading the information. Letting people and the public know that bats are really valuable and shouldn't be thought of as vermin or disgusting, and really are essential for the future of so many ecosystems throughout the globe. Another one is the understanding on a sort of political level. The more people that support organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts or any other conservation organisation around the globe, there will be some interest in preserving bats and the more people that can support those charities, the greater the chance that bats can survive. There are various bats specific charities that could be supported and if you're fortunate enough to own a better piece of land or a garden or whatever, doing things in your garden can help bats as well. Increasing the number of insects in your garden will help bats to feed. Put a water feature in a pond, it doesn't have to be very big. Leave a bit of your grass long and probably actually eat organic vegetables and organic food as well. You know, the use of pesticide has caused the crash in so many species of insect that has an impact on bats. The other thing that could be done is go out and enjoy bats and do things with bats. There are many bat walks and bat tours that go on. The Cambridge Wildlife Trusts do a bat punt safari. So if you happen to be in Cambridge between May and September, come along on a Friday and Saturday night and come on the river and you'll be surrounded by bats.


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