John Arnold: Bats scary? We shouldn’t fear them — but insects should...

For the week that was in it, John Arnold wrote about bats in his weekly column
John Arnold: Bats scary? We shouldn’t fear them — but insects should...

NATIVE TO IRELAND: The pipistrelle bat, one of the nine varieties of the mammal that can be found in Ireland.

I DON’T know why, but we always called ’em ‘leathern bats’ and I never heard anyone else use the term.

All this weekend, they’ll be talk of things that go bump in the night and the like. Well, 50 years ago the bats didn’t go bump in the night but made a kind of swooshing sound as they ducked and dived overhead.

People would use the term ‘as blind as a bat’ and sure, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth! They have no eyesight as we humans know it but their sonic radar is exquisite.

When I was growing up, I had a mop of foxy, curly hair and having a bat land in it was an ever-present fear — even threat! I think we were told that if we were bold or misbehaved, as sure as night follows day a bat would perch on top of our head.

I had visions of a winged mouse-like creature stuck solid in my thatch and I’d be afraid of my life to try and lay a finger on the bat to extricate it!

Getting back to the term leathern bats, maybe ‘twas because occasionally, up in the attic, we’d come across a dead, dried out bat and the little creature would resemble a piece of dried-out leather.

Our house was built more than 120 years ago. Originally, all the roof slates were ‘rendered’ underneath on the inside. It must have been a back- breaking job for a tradesman to apply a lime mortar mix over his head onto the slates, but they did it. By the 1960s, some of this render had fallen off and was on the floor of the attic on top of a myriad of electric cables and water pipes. The bats managed to get in between the slates and roosted hanging upside down from the rafters.

To be honest, the attic was a virtual no-go area in our house. Accessed by a trap door from the bathroom, a long ladder had to be brought up the stairs to gain entry to the ‘third storey’ of the dwelling. Only when there was a problem with frozen or burst water pipes did anyone venture up near the roof.

Sleeping by day and foraging and feeding by night, the bats weren’t exactly a popular housemate.

Before we put insulation material on the attic floor the winged mammals were regular nocturnal visitors to our bedroom. There were places where the ceiling and the walls of the room had parted company and often at three or four o’clock in the morning you’d be woken with the sound of the bat flying around the room — with door and window closed they had no obvious exit option.

I remember one hot summer night when we had a visitor from upstairs. I though if we did nothing only hide under the sheet the creature would go back where it came from, but no such luck. We turned on the light and opened the door, but no, the bat just went over and back noisily up near the ceiling, then, like a dive bomber, just above our heads in the bed! Eventually, it landed on the old mantle piece over the ancient fireplace.

Quick as a shot, I got the trousers of my pyjamas and covered the bat. Carefully then I bundled him up in the garment and threw pyjamas, bat and all, out the upstairs window and shut it.

I remember the following day a salesman called. He knocked at the front door. I opened it and there he stood, just a few inches away from where the bottom of my night attire lay. He looked at the garment and looked at me and up at the bedroom window. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, I said nothing!

It’s only in recent years that I started to take an interest in the life and times of bats. My main reason for doing so was to learn more about them and separate facts from myths.

If someone asked about the bat ‘population’ around here, I’d have said they were now very scarce —how wrong I was! Last year I became involved in the BRIDE Project, which is all about farming with nature and making sure our farming methods don’t harm the environment.

Well, one of the measures involved with this project was get an accurate picture of the flora, fauna and overall wildlife on our farm. The whole ethos behind BRIDE farming is to at least maintain the biodiversity we have, and if possible increase it.

Now, we still want to farm commercially and try and making a living from the ancestral acres, but in essence care for the environment and productive farming should go hand in hand. They should and can compliment each other. To be honest, we have no choice because with climate change, emissions and global warming, doing things as we did in the past is no longer an option.

Anyhow, we had to do a bat survey to determine if any species still dwelt here. As ye know, the bat is a nocturnal creature with a very sophisticated radar guidance system. Each one emits a high frequency sound which is inaudible to the human ear.

In order to do the bat survey, a piece of ‘recording’ equipment (bat detector) was set up here in the haggard — the experts knew the likely nightly ‘flight path’ of the bats. The yoke they put in place was not alone capable of detecting the presence of bats but, by checking the frequency, could determine what species that might reside here!

It was left in situ for three days and nights and then they took it away to decipher the contents. In this country, nine different species of bat have been confirmed as being what could be called ‘native’. These include the soprano and common pipistrelle and the rarely found Nathusius bat.

Well, lads, when we got our survey results after a week or so, we were pleasantly surprised — as were the bat experts — when they revealed that six of the nine Irish species are to be found here in Bartlemy!

Imagine, in one night a bat can eat up to 3,000 insects, fleas or flies — some appetite, you might say, but if you swatted a mosquito on your hand you’d be hard put to see the ‘remains’ of the deceased insect.

We’ve done very little over the years to encourage bats to stay around, whereas from now on we’ll be installing custom-made bat boxes to encourage even more to live in the Bride river valley.

The Knoppogue river flows through our land before it merges with the Flesk, which is tributary of the Bride. Apparently, human hair has a lot of natural oils and grease too. That’s why flies, fleas and other winged little lads tend to hover over our heads as we walk, especially at dusk. Down come the bats with mouths wide open, they swoop over the human head and eat their version of fast food!

As for the bat and Halloween, I suppose the whole Dracula and vampire blood-sucking flying creatures, they’ve been incorporated into the festival of witches and ghosts.

Thirty years ago in Ireland, we’d never heard off — never mind seen — a pumpkin and now acres of them are grown, and all for one week of the year. Some claim Bram Stoker got his Dracula idea from an Irish tale concerning bad blood — in Irish, droch olla; hence Dracula! Fact, fiction or fable? We’ll never know now, but who said the truth should never get in the way of a good story!

Some decry the fact Halloween has been over-commercialised, but sure, that’s the way with everything nowadays.

For me, the days of All Saints and All Souls are an opportunity to remember all those who have meant so much to us on life’s path. They were and are the people who made us what we are.

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