On an April morning the spring sunshine lit up Yarner Woods, the bare oak branches of the ancient woodland reached into the chalky blue sky. A group of volunteers gathered at the Woodland Centre, reminiscing about the previous summer, tagging and tracking the rare barbastelle bats. Standing outside the classroom window, memories were instantly recalled. “It was only a year ago when we all got together in there. We knew nothing about barbastelles then”. Talk of various bat species, mist nets, radio trackers, maternity roosts and foraging grounds soon revealed a new-found vast and intimate knowledge of some of the most endangered of woodland bats. Though only a few volunteers were able to meet that morning, the old enthusiasm and friendships were instantly rekindled and the plan for the day was to continue with the good ecological work from the year before. As the barbastelle tends to commute long distances to forage, it uses a number of temporary roost sites. To assist the bats with their travels the volunteers were preparing to put up a set of newly made bat roost boxes. Chris from the Natural England team of volunteers had been industriously building 40 boxes using timber cut from the previous year’s conifer thinnings. As the barbastelles prefer oak woods, this project would have a win-win outcome for them.
Once the Land Rover was fully loaded, the team set off to Hisley Bridge where aluminium ladders and timber boxes were shoulder carried along the bank of the river Bovey. Setting out the boxes between Hisley Wood and downstream into Rudge Meadow, each was fixed to a tree at regular intervals, spaced out to give the barbastelles, and any other bat species, plenty of options. They would have a choice of their ideal lodgings in their favourite spot in the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve. The morning’s work continued with repeated trips for the Woodland Trust volunteers carrying the boxes along the river to where the Natural England team waited with their ladders to fix the boxes in position.
Fresh air and exercise is a common benefit for the volunteers on the reserve and today, the warm sun and appearance of the season’s first butterflies, small white and brimstone, added to the overall feeling of wellbeing. The first few bluebells were beginning to show on the sunnier slopes and the oil beetles and the harlequin green haze of the early bursting oak leaves added to the colour of the morning.
Returning to the Woodland Centre, the team set about making the next batch of 40 boxes to be installed in two weeks’ time. These are destined to go in the woods upstream, along the Becka Brook which is the key area of the valley where most of the barbastelles’ maternity roosts have been found. Once the full set of boxes is ready, the bats will emerge from hibernation to find new shelters along their foraging routes.
The success of this work will be monitored through the coming summer. Roost boxes will be inspected to see if this colony in thriving in the valley. As there are estimated to be around 5000 barbastelles in the country, they need all the help they can get.
Words and images by Matt Parkins