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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Biological Records Centre



Shetland Bat Records

PLEASE NOTE: since the recent unfortunate death of a bat worker who contacted rabies, members of the public are strongly advised NOT to handle any bats, even if they are ill or in distress.

Bats, the world's only true flying mammals, comprise the world's second largest mammalian species group (beaten only by the rodents) with about 950 different species worldwide, are found everywhere except for the polar regions. Flight clearly distinguishes them from other mammals, their entire bone structure is modified for it, with the wings formed by elongated finger bones, over which is stretched an extremely thin skin membrane arising from the sides of the body and enclosing the legs and tail.

Most people will know that bats use echo-location to find flying insects but what is probably not known is that the majority of bats also have reasonably good eyesight and do-not blunder around flying into peoples hair! In flight they constantly emit high frequency clicking sounds, up to 200 per second and beyond the range of human hearing. The reflected clicking sounds from objects in the bats path enable it to literally hear its way about.

Bats can usually only be specifically identified in the hand, and even then the separation of some species is difficult. Many flight records of bats have gone unrecorded in Shetland, and records of unidentified bats are in general not included in this account unless the species involved could be reasonably inferred. The earliest mention of bats in Shetland is by Low (1879), who was informed that bats were occasionally seen in the islands while visiting Unst in 1774.

To date 7 species of bat have been recorded in Shetland, the records are as complete as possible, but details of any omissions, including any additional records, would be welcomed.

Parti-coloured Bat Vespertilio murinus

There are three records:

  • 1927   Whalsay, 31st March (Venables & Venables 1955)
  • 1981   Anderson High School, Lerwick, 19th November
  • 1984   Mid Yell, 16th November

This species is a rare vagrant to Britain, with only about ten records altogether. It is highly migratory, breeding in eastern Europe, including southern Scandinavia, and flying to southern Europe to hibernate.

Serotine Epstecius serotinus

There is one record:

  • 1991   Whalsay, 18th October, sent to Aberdeen

This is the only record of the species in Scotland. Its European breeding range only extends as far north as southern England and Denmark.

Leisler's Bat Nyctalus leisleri

There are two records:

  • 1978   Ollaberry, 24th August
  • 1996   East Burrafirth, 16th October, alive and sent to Aberdeen University

These are unusual records, as the nearest breeding colonies of this predominantly eastern European species are in Northern Ireland and Yorkshire.

Noctule   Nyctalus noctula

There are three certain records:

  • 1977   Burravoe, Yell, 25th July (Thorne 1983)
  • 1986   Asta, alive, 20th August (Nature Conservancy Council)
  • 1987   Voe, female, 23rd November

In addition, a large bat, thought to be either this species or a Serotine, emerged from the unfurled sail of a Swedish vessel in Scalloway Harbour in summer 1922 or 1923, and remained in the area for several days (Venables & Venables 1955). Another unidentified large bat, most likely of this species, was seen at Burrafirth on 29th March 1980. Noctules are the most widespread of the larger European bats, although absent from northern Scotland and most of Scandinavia.

Common Pipistrelle (photo right)   Pipistrellus pipistrellus

Nathusius' Pipistrelle (photo below)   Pipistrellus nathusii

The majority of the bats picked up and examined in the hand and most of the small bats seen in flight in Shetland are believed to belong to one of these two closely related species. Separation of the two species requires detailed examination, so few records have been assigned to a particular species. Venables & Venables (1955) give a record of a pipistrelle found in North Roe in 1904 and mention occasional sight records of small bats during their residence in Shetland, without any further details. One was picked up on Whalsay on 2nd November 1940 (Shetland Times), but most sightings have undoubtedly gone unrecorded.

There are almost annual records of small bats seen in flight and hence unidentified. They are most often seen in autumn, but there are records from almost every month.

Recent records of animals examined in the hand since 1980 have included:

Nathusius' Pipistrelle

  • 1987 Tingwall, 15th December
  • 1989 Levenwick, 12th September
  • 1992 Garderhouse, Sand, alive and sent south, 24th January
  • 1992 Baltasound, Unst, brought in by cat alive but later died, 3rd February
  • 1993 Burravoe, Yell, alive for several days, later died, 28th October
  • 1994 Sandwick, alive, 3rd October
  • 1996 Norwick, 16th October, alive and taken to Aberdeen
  • 1998 Whalsay, alive, 5th November

Common OR Nathusius' Pipistrelle

  • 1982 Sumburgh, 3rd October (identified as Common Pipistrelle at the time)
  • 1984 Unst, 26th October (identified as Common Pipistrelle at the time)
  • 1987 Lerwick, 9th October
  • 1989 Fair Isle, 3rd May
  • 1991 Whalsay, 6th March
  • 1991 Burravoe, Yell, late June
  • 1992 Whalsay, 16th May

It is now thought that most or all the pipistrelles seen in Shetland have been Nathusius' Pipistrelles.

The Common Pipistrelle is the most widespread bat in the British Isles, and is also found as far north as southern Scandinavia. Nathusius' Pipistrelle is mainly found in eastern Europe but is believed to be a strong migrant, explaining its occasional occurrences in Britain. It remains a rare vagrant, although the difficulty of a certain identification undoubtedly confuses the pattern. 

Brown Long-eared Bat     Plecotus auritus

There are three records:

  • 1947   Lerwick, hibernating in factory roof, December (Venables & Venables 1955)

  • 1972   Reafirth, no date given (Thorne 1983)

  • 1987 Sumburgh Airport, 12th March (NCCl)

In addition one was found alive on an oil rig in the North Sea on the 9th August 1995, flown to Sumburgh, and then to Aberdeen University. This species is almost as widespread in the British Isles as the Common Pipistrelle, but it is also the most widespread species in Scandinavia. A closely related species, the Grey Long-eared Bat P. austriacus occurs in southern England, and although unlikely to occur in Shetland, it should be borne in mind if a long-eared bat is discovered.

What to do if you find a bat in Shetland

In Britain it is illegal, without a license, to intentionally catch, handle or disturb wild bats, although no license is required to tend an injured bat. However, it must be stressed that as all bats found in Shetland are vagrants and may well have arrived from Europe, they should be treated with caution as some species are known to be potential carriers of rabies. If you find a bat in Shetland - do not handle it without protective gloves and please contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Office in Lerwick (01595) 693345, who will be able to advise on the best way to deal with it safely, which may involve them air-freighting it south to be rehabilitated in Scotland!


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