Quite by accident we have made the really exciting discovery that we have a rare species of bat roosting under our church – the Lesser Horseshoe bat!
The Lesser Horseshoe bat is one of the smallest British mammals, about the size of a plum with its wings folded and weighing around 5g-9g, with soft, fluffy grey/brown fur. It gets its name from its complex nose “leaf” which is related to its particular type of echolocation system.
Most bats squeeze themselves into small gaps and crevices to roost but our Lesser Horseshoes are some of the only bats that actually hang upside down by their feet, enabling them to twist and turn their bodies to look around before flying.
As dusk approaches in the summer Lesser Horseshoe bats start to fly around inside their roost, repeatedly flying to the entrance to test the outside conditions, before emerging about half an hour after sunset to hunt insects and feed amongst sheltered vegetation, often gleaning their prey off tree branches. They are most active at dusk and dawn but will hunt all night during the breeding season. Their echolocation calls can be picked up by a bat detector at around 110kHz, as a series of continuous warbling sounds.
Lesser horseshoe bats hibernate from October until April or May, in caves, mines, tunnels and cellars, hanging from the roof or ceiling, and venturing further underground than other species. They don’t usually collect in large numbers in one site – the six bats we have recorded emerging from under our church are a very respectable number to find in one place!
The bats mate during autumn and move from where they hibernated to maternity roosts, usually in buildings, from May onwards where the females give birth to a single baby from mid June to July. The young cling onto their mothers until they are ready to fly at around 6 weeks old.
The Lesser Horseshoe is rare in this part of the country, being found mostly in the south west of England and in Wales, and until quite recently they were declining in numbers as their habitat was lost to intensive farming and pesticides. Happily though they are now on the increase again and gradually spreading northwards and there are known to be maternity roosts in this area. Our little colony is therefore very special!
Churchyards are usually areas of ground that have remained uncultivated for many years, and as such they have the potential to be havens for wildlife where plants and animals can thrive among the graves and monuments. Indeed, until the 20th century they were wild, un-mown places, alive with bees and butterflies, occasionally even grazed by sheep! In the 21st century properly and sympathetically managed churchyards can again become places of wild beauty and tranquillity, surrounding us with the comforting reminder of the ongoing life and vitality of God's creation even amidst the sadness we feel at the passing of our loved ones.
The seeds of the Churchyard Conservation Project were sown early in 2013 when, while looking at ways we might try to encourage new people to come along to church, and with the added asset of an enthusiastic zoology graduate embarking on a career in conservation and ecology, we hit upon the idea of organising a bird box building session in the churchyard, which we advertised with posters around the village, and which proved to be a huge success.
2017 was the fourth year of the project, and things are starting to develop nicely. The Yellow Rattle, a semi-parasitic annual plant introduced as part of our management plan to control the vigorous grasses, is working well, and in the areas where it has established itself the grass was noticeably shorter and tidier for longer this season. This has allowed the wildflowers to gain a foothold, and as a result we have seen the spread of existing plants such as Meadow Vetchling and Birdsfoot Trefoil, as well as some exciting new plants popping up for the first time including Field Scabious and Peach Leaved Bell Flower. As the flowers have established we have also seen a rise in the numbers of pollinating insects and at least two new butterfly species that we haven’t seen before in the churchyard.
In June we held a Churchyard Open Day to celebrate Cherishing Churchyards Week. Although it was a dull and windy day we had a steady stream of visitors who came along to see what we are doing in our churchyard. We started the day early with moth and small mammal trapping, identifying many moths and insects, a wood mouse, two bank voles and a comparatively rare yellow-necked mouse which was a particularly exciting find. A group of young mums organised a Teddy-bears’ Picnic for the children and Julia Lucas displayed the results of her research into some of the graves and monuments, sharing some fascinating details about the lives of some of the people buried here. During the day, a group of ecologists carried out a detailed survey of the churchyard, recording over 75 species of plants and nearly 70 birds, animals and invertebrates – not bad for a single day!
Our efforts to create a place for nature to re-establish and flourish, providing habitat for a wide variety of species of plants and wildlife, are starting to take effect, and following the success of the open day and looking to the future as we move into the fifth year of the project, we feel we are nearly at the point at which we are able to invite the local schools to come and use the churchyard for science and natural history projects.
We are, as always, so grateful to our wonderful team of volunteers who come out in all weathers to our three working parties in March, July and November – they are the real heroes of the Churchyard Project which couldn’t run without them! Thank you, everyone, for all your continued support!