White-nose syndrome in Europe and the UK

The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (WNS), Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd) (previously called Geomyces destructans), has been identified on a number of bats in at least 17 European countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and most recently in Italy and Georgia. However, unlike in North America, these findings have not been linked with mass mortalities and WNS has not been confirmed in Europe.

The positive cases in the UK 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 and there has been a small number of subsequent cases.

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) 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 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. More can be read about this project in the resulting paper in PNAS published in 2020.

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 was introduced as a novel pathogen (probably from Europe) and so native species there do not have the same resistance to the fungus.

BCT is very grateful to the NBMP volunteers who have taken part in the various Pd surveillance 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