The Reporter
Issue 493, 27 October 2003
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Public safety fears threaten bats' Hallowe'en party


Brown, long-eared batThe caves of North Yorkshire make an unlikely clubland, but every night throughout the autumn, clients arrive together from up to 60 kilometres away and circulate the subterranean establishments in their thousands. This is where bats come to hang out at Hallowe’en and search for a mate. Conservationists are calling for their seedy underworld to be protected, so that both bats – and humans – can continue to enjoy the caves.

Party animal – the brown long-eared bat, widespread in Yorkshire though in decline

University of Leeds biologist Professor John Altringham explains: “Bats spend the summer dispersed in small colonies across the region, and opportunities to meet fresh faces are few and far between. Bats risk problems of inbreeding if they only find mates within their summer colonies, and the autumn cave-visiting behaviour seems to be an evolved strategy to avoid mating too close to home.”

New DNA evidence backs up the inbreeding avoidance picture, and it seems that clubbing is vital for bat populations to thrive. If the researchers are right, this puts the caves at the heart of bat conservation efforts, and threats to the caves would leave the party animal bats ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’. Fears for public safety mean many caves and mineshafts are now blocked to prevent accidents.

Altringham said: “My nightmare scenario is a safety conscious individual or organisation blocking the entrances to an important underground site – there’s a group of caves in the North York Moors that’s used by an estimated ten percent of the national population of Natterer’s bat. While that one is safe, others may be under threat, and closing a cave in winter could entomb thousands of bats in one fell swoop. Where cave entrances need to be shut, bat-friendly grilles should be used rather than concrete or trapdoors.”

Altringham and PhD student Anita Glover have shown that the ability of the bats to penetrate the caves themselves is astonishing – they fly kilometres underground, sometimes through passages just a foot across, spiralling into the ground down narrow potholes, and exploring the entire cave network.

Ease Gill in the Dales contains a network of 70 kilometres of tunnels – in a recent trip, Altringham and Glover spent 10 hours underground, moving from one cave entrance to another, and found traces of bats throughout.


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