White-nose syndrome in Europe and the UK

The fungus asociated with WNS, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (previously called Geomyces destructans), has also been identified on a number of bats in Europe, including the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other countries (including most recently in Italy this year). However, unlike in the USA, these findings have not been linked with mass mortalities and WNS has not been confirmed in Europe.

In 2013 the first positive cases of Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd) (previously named Geomyces destructans) were confirmed in the UK. This is the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in North America. It has been found at many sites in continental Europe but importantly without the associated syndrome that has caused the deaths of millions of bats. Up until 2013, despite a passive surveillance programme, we had not found the fungus here. That changed and we now have confirmation that the fungus is present at a number of sites across the Midlands, East and South East of England. There is no evidence that we also have white-nose syndrome (WNS).

The positive cases have come from a combination of passive and active surveillance work. The first confirmation was from a swab sample taken from a live Daubenton’s bat at a hibernation site in Kent back in February 2013 and submitted to the passive surveillance scheme run by the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA). The testing process can be lengthy due to the difficulties in culturing the fungus from a small sample. However, APHA confirmed that the swab was positive for Pd in July 2013. A second positive case through the passive scheme came from another Daubenton's bat this time at a hibernation site in Norfolk in March 2014 and was confirmed in May 2014.

The other confirmations have come from environmental samples and bat swab samples collected as part of two active surveillance projects. The first of these was was undertaken in collaboration with the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA, formerly the Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency) and Northern Arizona University. The methodology involved testing environmental samples for the presence of the fungus rather than bats directly. During their annual NBMP hibernation visits, volunteers collected sediment and surface samples from six sites in South East England. A number of samples from five sites tested positive for the presence of Pd. A further project, this time with a researcher from the University of California Santa Cruz, also involved NBMP volunteers but this time working under a special licence from Natural England to collect swab samples from bats as well as environmental swabs. As a result the fungus has been confirmed from additional sites in the Midlands, East of England and South East.

There have been no significant mortalities reported from any of the sites the samples were collected at or mass mortalities at any other hibernation site in the UK. Pd is present across a large part of Europe and there have been no cases of white-nose syndrome, no associated mass mortalities of bats. It is thought probable that European bats have a resistance to the fungus, possibly evolved over thousands of years of exposure. Evidence to date from the UK supports the theory that our bats have similar resistance to those elsewhere in Europe. In North America Pd is a novel pathogen and so native species do not have the same resistance to the fungus.

BCT is very grateful to the NBMP volunteers who have taken part in these projects and to everyone who has submitted samples for testing in the passive surveillance programme.

The guidelines we produce for bat workers are reviewed annually. We continue to update the information on the BCT website and provide updated guidance to other individuals visiting hibernation sites through our key caving contacts. If you have any questions about this information or BCT’s work in this area please email Lisa Worledge.

Next: Information for bat workers