JENNY Clark, the founder of the Sussex Bat Hospital, has been awarded an MBE for her work in saving bats, and in rehabilitating their public reputation as creatures to be protected rather than feared.
Now 70, Jenny has been caring for injured bats in Forest Row for 30 years, and said she was “over the moon” to learn of the award, which acknowledges the work done by Bat Groups across the UK.
“It’s hard to believe now, but until bats were Protected in 1981, they were regarded as vermin – people who had bats would call in the pest officer who would destroy them and lay them out on the front lawn to be counted.”
When Jenny rescued her first bat in 1984, she says she was amazed by the gentleness and charm of the furry little creatures – and realised that the key to their long-term future was education.
“Historically people have known very little about bats, and what you don’t know about you are afraid of, so they were regarded in folklore as the bearers of bad luck and disease.”
But the growing realisation that Britain’s 17 breeding varieties are in steep decline has prompted the establishment of volunteer groups across the country who – like Jenny – are dedicated to preserving and protecting our native species.
Jenny not only nurses as many as 50 bats at a time back to health at her hospital, she also has a team of resident bats who cannot be returned to the wild, who help her education work with ages from pre-school to university.
“In order to be released, the bats have to pass a flying test,” Jenny laughed. So they are released in her sitting room and assessed for “skills, stamina and attitude”.
And those that don’t pass, are given a home – and a job – for life as part of her team of educators.
Bat numbers in the UK have declined by 70%, but there are glimmers of hope on the horizon – particularly because the improvement in water quality has seen modest rises in the populations which feed over water.
But safeguarding our native bats is something we can all help to do, says Jenny.
A garden rich in plant variety will attract a wide range of insects – and support a wider range of bats in consequence. Bat boxes and access to water will also attract them.
Most importantly, cats need to be kept indoors overnight from an hour before dusk as cats prey on bats, killing them but not eating them.
And having a resident bat colony in the garden is not only endlessly fascinating, says Jenny, it will encourage children to value and respect them – and eventually to teach their own children to do the same.