Batty about Halloween

Bump in the night: The rare grey long-eared bat
Bump in the night: The rare grey long-eared bat
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Bloodsuckers, vampires, witch-spirits, disembodied souls and omens of death – it is fair to say that bats and moths have endured a decidedly mixed reputation down the ages.

But for those few mist-shrouded days in late autumn, these creatures of the night command centre stage as the ghoulish stars of Halloween. Images of bats in the moonlight and the flickerings of moths at the window sill are as much a part of All Hallows Eve as carved Jack O’Lantern pumpkins and dodgy skeleton costumes. But just how have these harmless and unobtrusive creatures developed such a devilish reputation?

The bad feeling may have something to do with the hours that bats and moths keep. Both have long aroused suspicion simply for being denizens of the dark. To make matters worse, bats are associated with the burial places of the dead – they actively seek out churches and graveyards, which offer fantastic roosting locations.

But it was the publication of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel Dracula in 1897 that saw our perception of bats change forever. The book did as much damage to the reputation of these tiny mammals as the film Jaws inflicted upon sharks in the 1970s. Stoker, inspired by breathless reports of newly discovered blood-sucking bats in South America, linked the animals with the character of shape-shifting vampire Dracula. In the novel Dracula takes the form of a bat to fly menacingly at the window of an intended victim. From then on, bats would be viewed as villainous creatures of the night.

Abi Mcloughlin from the Bat Conservation Trust believes we should look beyond ghoulish preconceptions and instead appreciate their nocturnal navigation skills. She explains: “Bats emerge and feed at dusk – just as the sun goes down. The fact they can ‘see in the dark’, where human’s fear to tread may be responsible for their spooky reputation. In addition to their rather good eyesight, bats use sound to help find prey in the gloom of evening, using echoes to build up a sound picture. They scoop up insects that are active at dusk and perform spectacular pest control – one bat can munch 3,000 midges a night.”

But British bats have more pressing concerns than bad publicity. There are 17 breeding species in the UK, and many have suffered declines as key habitats and roosting sites disappear.

Unlike bats, moths have long been beset with a sinister reputation. In Welsh folklore, it was believed that dead witches souls left their bodies as moths. This spooky association lives on through moth names. The Ghost moth earned its title through the haunting dance it performs at twilight. If you look closely at the upper wing of the Mother Shipton the hook-nosed face of a witch stares back. The moth is named after a cave-dwelling prophetess.

Sinister? No. Spooky? Possibly. But either way, creatures of the night are more fascinating than frightening.

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