Living in a small hamlet in north Dorset, surrounded by the open countryside probably encouraged my life-long interest in wildlife, although I didn’t recognise it at the time. It was in the early 1960s when I had my first encounter with a bat. I was around six years old when I found a small grounded bat on the garden path. I knew nothing about bats (nor did anyone else in the house) so I hung it on the wall. By the next morning it had gone. I didn’t know what had happened to it but I was just very glad I didn’t find it dead on the ground. It was probably another 20 years before I saw my next bat ‘close-up’, but that first encounter has stayed with me ever since.
I joined the Dorset Bat Group in the mid 1980s and soon discovered that my home county was one of the richest in terms of the number of species we have living here. My first encounter with the greater horseshoe bat, was finding out that a colony lived nearby, in the remains of a large country mansion. One summer evening, probably in 1985, a friend and I visited the site and we sat on a wall adjacent to the building to await the bats’ emergence. We watched and waited for what seemed like hours (but was probably no more than 30 minutes). Just after 2100hrs, the first bat emerged from a window and immediately flew back into the building. A little later, more bats emerged and flew around inside a walled courtyard before flying off over the wall and into the countryside. The warbling heard from our bat detectors was
unbelievable, and we could feel the wind from their wings on our faces as they whizzed past us to wage war on the local moth and beetle populations; could this get any better for a bat enthusiast? Unbeknown to us, ‘it could’: at around 2130hrs Henry Arnold turned up to undertake a census of the baby bats. He invited us in to assist with his work, and the foundations for my long-term association with this species, and this site in particular, were well and truly laid. I have continued to visit the site since then, initially as a volunteer and more recently as the Nature Reserves Manager with The Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT). Although not the largest roost in terms of numbers, it is because of my long association with the site, and personally overseeing the many renovations and improvements for the bats over three decades, that makes this my favourite site of all those I manage.
Bryanston greater horseshoe bat roost is affectionately known as, ‘The Horseshoe Hilton’: a moniker earned from the no-expense-spared generosity of the founder of The Vincent Wildlife Trust, the Hon. Vincent Weir. The Trust purchased the site in the mid-1990s and today it is a 5-star hotel for bats. Once part of a mansion owned by the Portman family, the ‘servants quarters and kitchens’ are all
that remain following its partial demolition in the 1890s. The relatives of the greater horseshoe bats that live there now probably moved in not long after the house was built in the late 1790s. When I started visiting the site, the number of adult bats numbered between 50 and 60 with around 20-25 babies being born each summer. Since then, the number of bats has increased to more than 250 adults and over 150 babies. Although a significant increase, this is over a thirty year period, and we’re all too aware that a series of long winters followed by cold spring weather could easily decimate the population.
Knowing the history of a site is not only rewarding but can go a long way to explaining the reasons why a local population might have decreased. The majority of the population of Dorset’s greater horseshoe bats lived in the stable-block of a large country house near Wareham. Unfortunately the roof timbers were treated with chemicals that were particularly poisonous to bats, and many thousands of bats died as a result. The bats at Bryanston were a small satellite roost from the main colony but their roost, and their individual futures, were relatively secure. Andrew Watson, Roger Blackmore and Bob Stebbings carried out some of the first ringing research here and discovered that many of the bats relocated south to the Purbeck stone mines to hibernate. Others flew north to sites in Wiltshire, and one intrepid animal flew all the way down to Buckfastleigh in Devon.
In the late 1980s, I was involved in helping to excavate the world’s first ever cave dug from solid rock for hibernating bats. Over one weekend, Bob Stebbings, Maurice Webber and the Dorset Bat Group removed around 40 tons of chalk from under the building, forming a T-shaped tunnel that would provide a suitable micro-climate. We had no doubt it was going to succeed, for on the following morning a greater horseshoe
bat was already in residence.
I’m very fortunate to manage some of the most important nature reserves for these rare animals in south-west England. At one of these sites, somewhere between 1400 and 1700 animals return to the roost every summer, and we frequently record over 700 babies. I have a very good team of enthusiastic volunteers that I am eternally grateful to; they turn out every summer to help count the emerging bats. As far as we are aware this is probably one of the largest, if not the largest, known colonies of greater horseshoe bats in Western Europe. On the same site, over 1000 bats overwinter in a nearby cave.
Every summer, I take part in the National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP) (http://www.bats.org.uk/pages/nbmp.html). This study enables the Bat Conservation Trust to monitor the summer trends in the population of these animals. I’d encourage anyone interested in bats to join their local bat group, find out where a local bat roost is and spend a few summer evenings counting them as they emerge. If you have bats on your own property it’s even easier! Not only is it very exciting, you’ll be contributing important data to a national study. Joining the Vincent Wildlife Trust in the early 1990s was probably the best career move I could have made: I can get up every morning and say “Great, I’m going to work” and not many people can say that.