NATURE NOTES ECOLOGIST
Star Field Bracken 2009, by Susan Derges
Unique Ilfochrome print 40 X 72 inches courtesy of the artist
THE LIGHT OF DARK Kate Blincoe enjoys a night out with bats and constellations for company
Dusk on the campsite. It’s a time for sipping wine, tending the fire and wondering at exactly what point the children will crash out.
Bats swoop overhead, silhouetted against the darkening sky. I can make out pipistrelles, a few noctules and a lone long-eared bat, shaped like a Halloween decoration. Their wings are whisper-thin, affording them the seemingly impossible ability to change direction in an instant and to fly at speed with wheeling agility.
Last year, I borrowed a bat detector to take part in a survey of my local area. I erected a microphone on a twometre pole attached to a device that would record the frequencies emitted by bats all night long. It was interesting to discover the species I share my garden with – mainly pipistrelles, but in surprising numbers. Many people only think about bats when they try to convert their loft or outbuildings and find they have guests. Bats take refuge in our buildings because many of their natural roosting habitats have been lost. They are a threatened species, protected by law, but they are all too often seen as an inconvenience rather than a delight. This reminds me to put up some bat boxes.
En route to the campsite, we’d passed under some expensive netting that spanned the dual carriageway. Bat bridges were designed to help the bats cross the road safely, guided above the height of the traffic. They can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds each and are controversial, seen by many as just a ‘tick in the box’ that does not prevent bat deaths. Ecologist John Altringham, who has estimated that possibly as many as 340,000 bats are killed on UK roads each year, told the Independent: “It seemed to me even before we did the science that no self-respecting bat was going to look at these strange things.”
Nightfall cloaks us in simplicity. Away from the fire, on this moonless night, I find something rare and precious. It is genuine darkness, of the ‘can’t see my own hand’ variety so very unusual these days. In my own garden, in a streetlight-free village, we still don’t have dark like this. The city, eight miles away, always casts its orange glow, the hum of the bypass its musical accompaniment.
Night-time illumination can upset our circadian rhythms and lead to the suppression of melatonin, the sleep hormone. For Nature, the disruption of natural patterns can be harmful too. If you’ve ever heard a bird singing its heart out at night and wondered if it was a nightingale, you’ve probably heard a confused robin. Sadly, as well as keeping you awake, it will have been using up energy that should have been reserved for daytime. In a harsh winter, that can be the difference between survival and death.
I’m no astronomer, but being able to see the stars and make out a few constellations – Orion, the Plough, and that’s me done – is satisfying. In the absence of other light, they stand out more vividly and somehow closer than ever.
Here in the darkness, the bats are doing what bats should. Some are youngsters on their first forays. At this time of year, the baby bats lose their dependence on their mothers’ milk and begin catching insects for themselves. The mating season will begin anew, and then the bats must concentrate on catching moths and other insects to build their fat stores ready for hibernation in a few months.
The fire is down to its final glow, the bats are busy and the children are asleep. It’s a chance to be separated from our disruptive technological crutches, and simply be.
Kate Blincoe is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting (Green Books, 2015).
Resurgence & Ecologist