Many of us love to see birds in our garden, and encourage them to nest with bird boxes. Bats can be overlooked, as they’re tricky to spot at dusk and often fly unnoticed. They’re a valuable part of our native wildlife and a welcome addition to any garden.
The most common bats you might see feast on mosquitoes and other pests, and many play an important role as pollinators. You can provide them with places to roost in your garden by putting up bat boxes that you can attach to trees or even a sheltered wall.
Bat boxes are easy to put together yourself, and there are plenty available to buy. To find the best bat boxes, we sent five widely available bat boxes to our expert Si Phillips: a Natural England level-two bat-licence holder and a volunteer bat worker for the Bat Conservation Trust and Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. He’s been running local bat-box projects for a number of years.
He examined each box for its construction quality, how easy iti s to use in a garden, how easy iti s to set up and how suitable it is for bats.
This solid, softwood bat box looks like a bird box but has slots and a ramp underneath for bats. It’s lighter than many and is easy to set up using the supplied fixings and clear installation instructions. It’s self-cleaning, so any droppings will just drop from the bottom of the box. This box can’t be opened, which is a good feature as it means the bats can’t be disturbed.
Siting The box should be placed high up to minimise disturbance for the bats, ideally away from bright lights and noisy areas. If possible, keep it sheltered from strong winds and out of the direct summer sun, as the box could get too hot. If you’re fitting the box to a building, it should be at a height of at least four metres. Under a gable end is ideal, without any obstructions underneath. If fitting to a tree, place it as high as possible, ideally more than three metres. Keep the area underneath clear of branches to allow the bats to drop out of the entrance and take flight. It’s important to site the boxes away from anywhere cats could get at them, as they are a major cause of bat deaths and injuries in the UK. Most importantly, make sure the box is securely fitted, as you don’t want an occupied box falling to the ground. Wooden boxes shouldn’t be painted or treated in any way, as the chemicals used could be harmful.
Monitoring for activity Bats are a schedule 1 protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. It’s illegal for any member of the public to disturb a roost, or handle or kill any bat. Bat boxes, therefore, may only be inspected by a licensed bat worker. One of the best ways to check if bats are using the box is to sit and observe at dusk on a warm summer evening. Pipistrelles can emerge very early, sometimes while the sun is still up. If you’re really keen, try a heterodyne bat detector, which converts bat calls into sounds you can hear. There’s probably more activity than you realise. You can also check for droppings stuck to the wall or tree trunk underneath the box. They’re similar in appearance to mouse droppings, but are dry and crumble to a shiny dust. Some bat-box manufacturers recommend checking inside the boxes with a torch, but this is a bad idea and is likely to discourage the bats from using the roost. A Natural England licence is required to disturb bats with artificial light. You should never try to open boxes to clean them or check for bats, as bats have very delicate wings and skeleton, and could easily be injured. It’s an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb a bat roost without having the appropriate licence. For this reason, we don’t recommend boxes that aren’t self-cleaning.
Although bats are protected by law, you’re allowed to handle them to help them out. Only pick up bats that are on the ground or injured, and make sure you wear gloves. If they’re hanging from a wall or tree, just leave them alone.
What to do if you find a live bat on the ground
Contain the bat in a box – a shoe box, for example – with holes punched into the lid. Give it a little water to drink in a water bottlecap. The bat will want to hide in a dark and quiet spot, so put a tea towel or soft cloth in the box for it to shelter under. For advice, call the National Bat Helpline on 0345 130 0228,or find your local bat group on Facebook.
How to protect bats from cats
Cat often attack bats and leave them injured or seriously ill. If you’re a cat owner, the simplest thing you can do to protect bats is to keep your cat in at night. If that’s not possible, try to keep it indoors from half an hour before sunset until an hour after sunset, as this is when bats are most in danger. Cats are a risk to bats all year round; they tend to sit outside a roost (usually on a roof) and can then kill every bat that emerges.
It can take months or even years for bats to find and start using a bat box. You can help to increase the likelihood of bats in your garden by planting night-scented flowers to attract insects, such as evening primrose, phlox or honeysuckle. A wildlife pond is a brilliant way of encouraging all kinds of species. Try to allow areas of grass to grow to full height. Switching off garden lights and keeping cats indoors at night is also recommended.
Bat boxes in the garden are most likely to be used by bats as a daytime roost. It’s possible they could be used all year round, as pipistrelles do hibernate in wooden boxes. Solitary males could take up residence, and in the autumn they become very territorial as it’s mating season.
Easily identifiable in silhouette by its long ears, this is a medium-sized bat that likes to hunt close to the ground, where it feasts on earwigs, flies, spiders and beetles. These bats fly more slowly than others, which helps you identify them. They roost in buildings and trees, so might be tempted by a bat box.
If you’re lucky enough to have a large pond in your garden, or you live near a river or lake, you might spot Daubenton’s bat – a medium-sized bat with brown fur and a pinkish face. This charming mammal can be seen swooping across water to feed on emerging invertebrates. It likes to roost near water, so isn’t likely to choose a garden-based roosting box.
The soprano pipistrelle is the UK’s tiniest and most common bat. It’s a welcome sight at dusk, as it flutters around our gardens to feed on flies, moths, midges and mosquitoes. It nests in buildings and holes in trees, so might choose to use a well-located bat box.
The noctule is the UK’s largest bat, with a wingspan of up to 40cm.It has golden-brown fur, a dark brown face and ears, and a very high-pitched chirp. This woodland dweller is best spotted flying above the trees at dusk, as it feeds on moths. It’s unlikely to roost in gardens, as it prefers woodland.
The pipistrelle bat is almost identical to the soprano pipistrelle, but slightly larger. It has brown fur and a black face and wings. This little bat enjoys hunting near water as well as in long hedgerows. It roosts in small groups, and is quite happy to use a bat box.