I knew Europe’s smallest bat, the pipistrelle, was small, but the tiny face peeking over my thumb in Libby Ranzetta’s living room is only fingernail size and, with it’s tiny black eyes in the front of its face, it looks oddly human. It is seriously cute.
Libby, who runs Bury St Edmunds Bat rescue, said: “The usual reaction is ‘isn’t it sweet’ and ‘can I stroke it?’ and people are surprised how small they are.”
Pipistrelles are only 3.5 to 5cm long and even the biggest of our 17 bats, the noctule, is only about 8cm long, though its wingspan can top 30cm.
Libby began Bury Bat Rescue in 2012 after working on the Bat Conservation Trust’s helpline and realising there was a gap in West Suffolk for someone to look after battered bats.
For Libby, it is obviously a labour of love and their fascination to her is infectious.
“I’ve always loved bats,” she said. “There’s something about that twilight time when these things come out.
“They are the only mammals that truly fly. Yes, there are squirrels that glide, but bats can take off from the ground and keep going.”
She points out they are not rodents and are actually closer to us than mice. For example, their wings are membranes stretched out between their bodies and arms and fingers with a bone structure like our own.
Libby recalls her early days after Bat Conservation Trust training: “I thought I might have had four bats in the first year, but I had 80. Summer was just starting and the pipistrelles decided to have babies, then it rained for a couple of weeks and they abandoned those babies.”
Bats mate in the autumn but the gestation period does not start until the weather warms up the following spring, so changes in weather can hit them hard. Mothers carry the babies at first, then leave them in their roosts and if they cannot find enough food for themselves, will not return.
It is then the babies crawl out looking for mum, which is when people find them.
A bat baby’s body weight is such a huge proportion of the mother’s weight that they can only have one a year, which makes saving orphans important.
Libby explained: “We feed them every two hours and use goats milk. That’s the closest we can get to bat milk and if we can get colostrum – milk from goats who have just given birth – it’s even better.
“Luckily there’s a lady at the vets I use who has goats, but it would be useful to know if anyone else can help.”
But not all the bats in her mosquito tent cages are orphans.
“At this time of year we get a lot of starving bats, because summer hasn’t really got started yet,” she said. “A lot have been talking to cats and have tears to wing membranes and cuts.
“They can recover from things like broken arms.
“I’ve had one that fell in a paint tray, which was difficult because you had to clean it quickly so it didn’t try to clean itself and swallow paint.”
She introduces me to Rabbit (above), the brown long eared bat, whose wings collapse like a folding umbrella, who got shut in a garage door in Lawshall and whose grazed wings are slowly healing.
More mysterious is a noctule found on RAF Mildenhall’s runway.
“We think she’s deaf, so she can’t echo-locate,” Libby said. “She has nothing physically wrong with her, but she won’t fly.
“You do wonder if it is right to keep one that can’t fly, but she seems happy enough at the moment and she comes out with me on the school talks, so she’s doing her bit for the species. ”
She certainly looks happy enough as she crunches mealworms in a surprisingly noisy way.
Bats are protected and, while they can be kept for their own welfare, Libby needs a licence to keep bats like the noctule longer.
It is little wonder a deaf bat does not fly. They use very high frequency sound, between 45 kilohertz (kHz) and 75kHz, to ‘see’ obstacles and find food. The upper reaches of human hearing are only 20kHz.
This also means the old wives tale that they get tangled in your hair is a myth.
Libby explained: “If your head is nice and warm, the flies are attracted to it and that’s what they’re after if they’re flying round your head, but, no, they’re not going to get tangled in your hair.”
In fact, they are doing you a favour because a pipistrelle munches about 2,000 gnats and mosquitoes a night. Bigger bats eat moths and flying beetles while the long eared bats also hear caterpillars on leaves and hover to pick them off.
So how do you return the favour if you find an injured one?
“You need to contain it and get help,” Libby said. “Pick it up in a gloved hand or by putting a hanky over it and put it in a box.”
Keep air holes small, because they can get through small gaps, and give them a small container of water – Libby uses plastic milk bottle lids.
There is a national bat helpline on 0345 1300228 or if you are in the Bury area, call Libby on 07974 267345. Her website is www.bsebatrescue.org.uk