The Halloween weekend is sure to feature images of bats among its seasonal gallery of ghouls and spooks, yet the reality of these remarkable animals is greatly at odds with their depiction as sinister creatures of the night.
Ger O’Donohue, chair of Galway Bat Group, is just the man to dispel some widely held misconceptions about bats, and, over an illuminating afternoon chat, he also discussed the variety of species to be found around Galway.
A consultant ecologist with the Moore Group, Ger is a native Galwegian. “My dad is from Highfield, my mother from Middle Street and I grew up in Corrib Park,” he tells me. “We always had an affiliation with the river and the lake; Dad was a member of both Galway Rowing Club and Corrib Rowing and Yachting Club and my brother is a fisherman on the lake, my uncle lives in Annaghdown and we’d be shipped up there in the summer holidays. That connection with the river and the lake fed into me choosing to do aquatic science in NUIG, and while there I joined the kayak club and through that got to know the waterways in town a lot more intimately.”
Ger’s interest in bats arose largely from his job with the Moore Group, a Galway-based multi-disciplinary environmental, planning and heritage resource management consultancy founded by Declan Moore in 2001. “I do impact assessment for any particular development that would require it in terms of habitat, ecology, flora and fauna,” Ger explains. “A lot of these developments, if they involve demolition of houses or buildings, require bat surveys so I started to take an interest in bats. ”
Ireland has nine different species of bat and all nine occur in Galway city or county. “The most common species is the Pipistrelle bat of which there are three types,” Ger relates. “There is the common pipistrelle, the soprano pipistrelle and Nathusius pipistrelle; the first two varieties are the most common Irish bats. Then there is the Leisler’s bat, which is our largest bat – though it would fit into the palm of your hand, while the soprano pipistrelle would be only the size of an adult’s thumb. The Daubentons bat is a specialist in feeding over water; you’ll see it flying over many waterways in Galway and up and down the canal. Whiskered bats are slightly more ‘woody’ bats and we also have roosts of Natterers bats, brown long-eared bats, and the lesser horseshoe bat.”
“The lesser horseshoe bat is a slightly different species in terms of how it feeds and where it lives and it is much rarer than the other eight Irish species of bat,” Ger continues. “It is only found in western coastal counties from Sligo down to Kerry. So it requires a higher level of protection and is listed on the EU Habitat Directive. There are lesser horseshoe bats in Menlo Castle and a few roosts in south Galway that are regularly monitored by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.”
'If you find bats in your attic there are steps you can take, the first and best being to contact your local wildlife ranger. Galway Bat Group can help as well'
One of the chief factors that differentiates the lesser horseshoe bat from the other Irish species is that its echolocation faculty derives from special skin-flaps around its muzzle (which form a horseshoe shape, hence its name ) whereas the other bats use skin flaps outside their ears for that function. It was the protection needed by the lesser horseshoe bat that prompted the formation of Bat Conservation Ireland in 2004, a national body with which Galway Bat Group often co-operates.
One notable symbol of the protection afforded to lesser horseshoe bats around Galway is Ireland’s first ever ‘bat bridge’ constructed on the M17, near Coole Park, which acts as a flight corridor for a local colony of the bats. Whereas, in the past, developers and land owners might have grumbled about legal protection measures for wildlife, Ger says that attitudes are changing.
“The employment of mitigation measures like the bat bridge for large infrastructural projects is very important,” he points out. “As regards developers, or project proponents, there has been a huge increase in awareness of the loss of biodiversity over the past five to 10 years. It is very topical in social media. Also, the requirement to enforce the law in terms of protection of rare or protected species is being enforced much more stringently in planning and development.
"Local authorities are enforcing the need for the consideration of wildlife and habitats under a range of laws that go back to 1976 like the Wildlife Act, under which all Irish bats are protected. It is an offence either to deliberately kill a bat or to disturb, or destroy, a roost. If you find bats in your attic there are steps you can take, the first and best being to contact your local wildlife ranger from the NPWS and they will advise you on what to do. Galway Bat Group can help as well.”
'The Galway Bat Group was started in the early 1980s and some of our members have been there since the beginning'
Ger goes on to debunk some frequent bat-related fallacies. “The commonest misconception is embodied in the phrase ‘blind as a bat’. All bats can see; it is just that they feed and move about at night time using echolocation, similar to whales and dolphins. It’s a highly effective way of navigating through their environment; they can fly through a thicket of hawthorns or willow and avoid the smallest branches - so bats won’t fly into your hair! All the species of bats in Ireland are insectivores – a pipistrelle can eat up to 3,000 insects per night – so we have no vampire bats. There are no vampire bats in Europe, they are restricted to South America. Of course that is where the whole Halloween thing comes from, the Dracula connection, but also from the fact that bats come out and feed at night and rest during the day.”
Another irony of bats being deployed as Halloween emblems is that this is the time of year when the animals go into hibernation, as does Galway Bat Group – as Ger explains in wrapping up our chat. “The Galway Bat Group was started in the early 1980s and some of our members have been there since the beginning, like Liz and Gerry Martin from Oranmore, and Kate McAney of Vincent Wildlife Trust who co-founded the group. Among our activities we help the NPWS in monitoring bat numbers, and we are involved in making bat boxes which are artificial roosts erected to encourage bats to roost in areas where few roosts are present.
"We run events during Galway Heritage Week, in August, and the Go Wild event in May. We do bat walk-and-talk tours then, like the bats, we go into hibernation around this time of year and come back out in April [like the bats], when we train new members who wish to get involved in bat monitoring.”