Hooking Bats – How Anglers are Helping Conservationists

Hooking Bats – How Anglers are Helping Conservationists

So, there you are at the beginning of the season. Putting on your first team of flies and practising your casting techniques, when no sooner as you cast out, you get a take.

All that hard work has paid off in an instant. However, you notice that the line is moving strangely, so you start to reel in and gaze towards the end of the line and realise that what you’ve got is a bat!

Believe it or not, a lot of bat conservationists are also keen anglers.

It must be the dark that excites them, as well as the graceful flight patterns and the lure of the line.

I have to admit this right away, that I’m not an angler and know little about the sport, other than recognising the enormous range of skills involved. However, countless tales are recited to me by anglers, about the times bats have been seen swarming around bridges and trees, crawling on river banks after emerging from (apparently) underground or getting caught on the line, all be it accidentally.

It seems that anglers encounter bats more regularly than those strange people on the banks with head torches and noisy electronic gadgets, that whistle or click more than a hearing aid with low battery life!

Bats, particularly the Daubenton’s bat, are frequently seen skimming the surface of rivers, ponds or other water bodies at dusk. Daubenton’s bats look like small stealth aircraft, as they loop back and forth close to the surface as they hunt for emerging flies, mosquitoes and midges.

Despite their amazing ability to fly in the dark and catch tiny moving insects amongst the branches and leaves, bats occasionally mistake artificial fishing flies for the real thing.

Often, it’s a wingtip or the tail membrane that gets caught as you are casting, but bats are also known to have been hooked in the mouth.

So what do you do next? Well, you should be aware of the risk of rabies infection and some simple precautions to take.

First of all, don’t panic, as the risk of catching rabies is very low. However, you should still take these simple steps to protect yourself.

  • If you catch a bat, avoid touching it with bare skin. To be infected you need to be bitten or scratched by an infected bat or to have contact between its saliva and an open wound or the mucous membranes of your eye, nose or mouth.
  • If you think you may have been bitten or scratched by a bat, wash the wound immediately and thoroughly (preferably with soap and water, and without scrubbing) and speak to your doctor – an effective post-exposure vaccination is available.
  • If possible, try to ‘land’ the bat on the riverbank where it may be able to free itself from the line.

Do not allow a hooked bat to continue flying around on the end of a line for longer than necessary and if it does not free itself within 5 to10 minutes, you may wish to cut the line close to the fly. If unsure of what to do at any time (including what to do with an injured bat), contact the Bat Conservation Trust on 0845 1300 228.

  • Bats are legally protected species. However, if a bat is seriously injured and unlikely to recover, you may kill it in a humane manner. At this stage, it would be recommended to contact the Bat Conservation Trust (0845 1300 228) who can advise on what to do with the dead bat.
  • Finally, if you do need to handle the bat (alive or dead), wear protective gloves or wrap as much of the bat as possible in a cloth (especially the head and mouth).

Rabies in the UK

It is recognized that some bats in Europe do carry a rabies virus called European Bat Lyssavirus (EBLV). This is different from classical rabies, which has never been found in a bat in Europe and has two different strains; EBLV1 and EBLV2.

Over the past 18 years of surveillance by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, with over 200 bats tested each year for the live bat rabies virus (more than 4,000 in total), only four cases have returned positive results.

All of these cases, in 1996 (Sussex) 2002 & 2003 (Lancashire) and 2004 (Surrey), were Daubenton’s bats carrying EBLV2. Recent research in England and Scotland (a survey in Wales has not been commissioned) does not affect this statistic, as none of the bats tested positive for the live virus itself, just for the antibodies.

The discovery of EBLV in UK bats does not affect the UK’s rabies-free status.

So how can a bat have antibodies to a disease that we believe is fatal (to bats) without testing positive for the live virus? There appear to be five ways in which this could happen. These are:

  1. The bat is infected and is/is not yet showing rabies symptoms.
  2. The bat has recovered from rabies infection.
  3. The bat has been challenged by some part of a virus that has caused an antibody reaction but did not result in an infection (this is how vaccinations work).
  4. The bat has acquired antibodies from its mother’s milk (short-lived benefit).
  5. The bat was challenged whilst it had the acquired antibodies from its mother and then produced its own antibody defence (mother has antibodies for reasons 1, 2 or 3).

The research carried out so far in England and Scotland has consisted of blood sampling and saliva swabs. This has been carried out by professionals, ensuring that no bats were harmed. The rabies testing over the last 18 years has been on bats that died from natural causes and have been sent in by volunteers.

Finally, the risk of catching the virus from a bat is extremely low, for several reasons:

  • 18 years of surveillance of bats for rabies in the UK has found only four cases of the live virus.
  • Human contact with bats is very rare, even when they share the same buildings.
  • EBLV is transmitted by the bite of a bat carrying the live virus. There is, therefore, no risk to people if they do not approach or handle a bat.
  • Bats are not aggressive, although, like any wild animal, they may bite to defend themselves if handled. A bat that appears to be bearing its teeth is actually ‘scanning’ you with its unique method of echolocation – building up a picture of its environment by using a type of sonar, which is mostly inaudible to humans.
  • There is an effective treatment for those exposed to EBLV; this must be administered promptly as soon as possible after exposure.

Further Information of Interest

  1. The Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) is the only national organisation solely devoted to the conservation of bats and their habitats in the UK. Its network of 95 local bat groups and 1,000 bat workers survey roosts and hibernation sites and work with householders, builders, farmers and foresters to protect bats. BCT operates the Bat Helpline on 0845 1300 228, providing advice for all who come into contact with bats. More information can also be found on the BCT’s website,
  2. You can also get advice regarding bats and other European protected species in Wales from the Countryside Council for Wales 0845 1306 229 or visit their website, The Countryside Council for Wales is the Government’s statutory adviser on sustaining natural beauty, wildlife and the opportunity for outdoor enjoyment in Wales and its inshore waters.

Bat Facts

There are Seventeen species of bat that reside in the UK. The commonest bats are pipistrelles (common and soprano), which measure just 4 – 5cm in length and are the bats most likely to be seen flitting around in the garden or roosting in houses. The rarest bat is the greater mouse-eared, which until recently was considered extinct in the UK; the same individual has been found hibernating in Sussex over the past few winters, leading conservationists to believe that it may be returning.

Like all mammals, bats are warm-blooded, give birth and suckle their young. They are very sociable animals, living together in colonies. They are long-lived (some can live for up to 30 years), are intelligent, highly mobile and more agile in flight than most birds.

Bats fly and feed in the dark, which they are able to do by producing a stream of high-frequency calls and listening to the returning echoes which give a distinct ‘sound picture’ of the surroundings. This is called echolocation, and can only be heard by humans through the use of a device called a bat detector.

Bats in the UK eat only insects (such as midges, moths and mosquitoes), which they catch in flight or pick off the water, foliage or the ground. The pipistrelle can eat up to 3,000 midges in one night – one-third of its body weight!

Declining bat numbers have made it necessary to legally protect all UK bats and their roosts, whether they are in residence or not. This protection also makes it an offence to block their entrance and exit holes without seeking advice.

Many thanks to Richard Dodd the Welsh Bat Officer who has taken the time to write this article. If any of you have further interest in Bats then contact Richard at the

First of all, don’t panic, as the risk of catching rabies is very low. However, you should still take these simple steps to protect yourself.

Richard Dodd – Welsh Bat Officer (Bat Conservation Trust), Tel: 029 2036 2531