As It Happens

Why conservationists want to turn derelict stables into a nursery for bats

Conservationists are trying to find a safe home for a rare species of bats that have started breeding in southwest England for the first time in more than 100 years.

Why conservationists want to turn derelict stables into a nursery for bats

Two greater horseshoe bats peer down from a ceiling. The species is on the rise again in Europe, and was recently discovered in southeast England for the first time in about 110 years. (Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock)

Story Transcript

Conservationists are trying to find a safe home for a rare species of bats that have started breeding in southwest England for the first time in more than a century.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust and the Sussex Bat Group are trying to repopulate the region with the once-thriving greater horseshoe bat. 

And they say they've found the perfect place for their bat nursery — a run-down stable block in Sussex.

"If we can acquire it, it means that we can make sure it's suitable for them to develop their colony and we hope, enlarge the colony and spread around the southeast," Tony Hutson, a volunteer with the Sussex Bat Group, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"We're convinced that by taking over this property and raising funds from the general public to acquire it, we can change the future for this species."

A triumphant return 

A century ago, greater horseshoe bats were a common sight in southwest England. But habitat loss and the widespread use of pesticides contributed to their dwindling population.

Over the last 100 years, Britain has lost more than 90 per cent of the species, according to the Vincent Wildlife Trust.

But then, in 2019, there was a sign of hope. The bats were discovered living in the east of England for the first time in more than 110 years.

At the time, the Mammal Society told the Guardian newspaper the species is on the rise overall, with its numbers doubling over the last 10 years, from an estimated 6,500 to about 13,000.

It's not clear what brought them back, but some research suggests climate change may be a factor. Warmer spring weather brings more insects to eat, and encourages the animals to breed earlier, giving the juveniles more time to build up their energy reserves before they hibernate. 

Hutson also credits more sustainable farming practices, including a reduction in pesticide use.

A horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Conservation is also a part of the picture. The Vincent Wildlife Trust says it runs 37 bat reserves in Britain and Ireland, where half the countries' greater horseshoe bat population raise their young. 

Efforts to protect the bats are helped by the fact that people's perceptions of the once reviled creatures has changed dramatically over the decades, said Huston.

"A lot of people have really found that they quite like bats. And most of the problem was that people didn't really understand them," he said.

"Over the recent years, there's been a lot more opportunities to help people understand these animals and appreciate them. And they do a lot of good."

For example, bats prey on the pests that eat the vines on England's many vineyards. 

"We're getting a lot of support from other areas of Sussex and the surrounding counties who would like the bats back in their counties as well," Hutson said. 

The bats were once cave dwellers, but now mostly roost in buildings with large roof spaces, like churches, large homes or barns.

Hutson says that with a little love and care, the stable block would make a perfect location for the critters to rear their young. Everything they need — pastures and woodland with plenty of bugs to munch on — would be within their reach.

So far, they say they've raised about $340,000 of the $600,000 they need to buy and renovate the property. 

The groups are not revealing the location of the stables because they are still negotiating the purchase. It's a process they hope will wrap up in a few months. 

"At the same time, we're not really keen on publicising exactly where it is because they're sensitive bats and need that peace and quiet," Hutson said.

That's why they plan to install cameras and host livestreams, he said, "to enable people to appreciate what's going on."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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