Take them under your wing

Vincent Wildlife Trust’s Hilary Macmillan reveals how we can bring Britain’s horseshoe bats further from the brink of extinction

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 3 September 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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This article first appeared in our ‘Why organic is the answer’ issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 03 September 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

‘And bats went round in fragrant skies,
And wheel’d or lit the filmy shapes
That haunt the dusk, with ermine capes
And woolly breasts and beaded eyes’

ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON

Tennyson’s reference to ‘ermine capes’ suggests he is talking about horseshoe bats and their peculiar habit of snugly wrapping their wings around their bodies as they hang freely, dangling by their spindly legs − a quirk that’s not seen in other British bats.

Tennyson must have been familiar with horseshoe bats, yet they no longer breed in any of the English counties in which he once lived − until now.

I am standing in a bed of nettles in the yard of a derelict Victorian stone stable block in West Sussex, surrounded by woodland and grazed pasture − not far from Tennyson’s Blackdown home. It is a victim of weather and neglect, but the structure has a new purpose: with just a handful of residents, it is probably the most important greater horseshoe bat maternity roost in Britain.

A West Sussex home

An extraordinary journey has been undertaken by a small number of pioneering bats. A breeding colony of this rare species has recently been discovered here in West Sussex − 100km east of its south-west England stronghold.

It is 100 years since greater horseshoe bats bred anywhere in south-east England, after an alarming decline in numbers in the 20th century. By some estimates, the population in Britain fell by a catastrophic 90%, the result largely of habitat loss and a lack of suitable roost sites.

Since the 1980s, Vincent Wildlife Trust has been buying up and conserving roost sites of the horseshoe bat; today the wildlife charity now has around half of all greater horseshoe bat roost sites under its wing.

Species recovery in action

The work of the Trust, alongside the introduction of legal protection in 1981 and a series of mild winters over this period, has resulted in a reversal of the bats’ decline. Today, numbers have grown from a 1980s low of around 4,000 to an estimated 13,000.

That may sound a good number, and it is certainly a success story, but compare it with around 3 million pipistrelles, our commonest bat, and you get the picture.

To find this outlier breeding colony in the south-east is a welcome sign that this bat is outgrowing its stronghold in south-west England and spreading into pastures new.

This is species recovery in action – a biodiversity good news story – and we are in desperate need of those right now. But the bats need a helping hand. They are not easy to please.

Greater horseshoe bat, photo by Frank Greenaway
Greater horseshoe bat, photo by Frank Greenaway

How you can help

Originally cave dwellers, the bats need a range of temperatures and humidity – a natural air-conditioning system. Often old mansion houses and their outbuildings fit this bill. The bats also require access to their favoured dung beetles, cockchafers and larger moths; no building is suitable without a source of food nearby.

The bats have decided that this stable block has potential, even though rain pours through the roof. This is why Vincent Wildlife Trust and Sussex Bat Group are coming to the bats’ aid.

If the two groups can raise the purchase price of the building and fund the renovation costs, this redundant stable block could be transformed into a five-star residence for breeding females. The optimal conditions would boost the population of greater horseshoe bats in Sussex and help this species to return to south-east England.

The Sussex Bat Appeal has just been launched to raise an ambitious £350,000. This includes £200,000 to buy the stable block and a further £150,000 to renovate the property and provide the bats with all they need for a long-term future in the south-east. If the result is a species moving further from the brink, it has to be a real bargain.

Click here to support the Sussex Bat Appeal.

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