Project shines light on rare mammals

A pioneering conservation project led by Devon Wildlife Trust has ended after spending five years discovering more about the lives of one of Devon’s rarest mammals.
Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project

Since 2015, greater horseshoe bats have been the focus of an initiative led by the conservation charity Devon Wildlife Trust. Known has the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project, it has worked alongside communities across the county to help the struggling nocturnal mammal species which has seen its populations shrink in the UK by around 90% over the course of the 20th century.

From its outset, the project identified that a lack of knowledge about the lives of these secretive insect-eating animals was hindering efforts to help them. A prime objective of the project became a quest to discover more about where greater horseshoe bats live in Devon, the places they hibernate in winter, the roosts they raise their young in during summer and the pathways they use to find their feeding areas.

The project, which has been supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund and a coalition of local partners solved this absence of information by launching an annual ‘Devon Bat Survey’, mobilizing an army of volunteers who used specialist bat recording equipment provided by the project to discover more about the species’ habits.

Over the five years of the project, a whopping 2,500 of these volunteer surveys were conducted in every corner of the county. These yielded more than 3.8 million bat records, each of them a recording of the sounds made by bats as they use echolocation to help them navigate their way around at night. As there are more than a dozen different bat species commonly found in Devon, the project team had to undertake the monumental task of sifting through these millions of records looking for those made by the all-important greater horseshoe bats.

Surveys by the project's volunteers yielded 3.8 new bat records
Anna David
Devon Wildlife Trust
Team members of the Greater Horseshoe Bat Project

Greater Horseshoe Bat Project team

However, their hard work paid off, as 774 new records of the rare bats were identified. Mapped onto the Devon landscape, the project was able to produce a detailed guide to where greater horseshoes are most active, including crucial information as to the main flightpaths used to find their insect food.

The next task was to protect and improve these flightpaths and foraging areas. The project team undertook this vital job by working with communities where the bats are most active. This meant staging more than 200 ‘bat events’, helping local people discover the bats on their doorsteps, their fascinating lives and what they could do to help them. Schools also became a focus; the project team worked with more than 5,500 Devon pupils to help them learn more about the bats that live close by.

But perhaps most important of all, project staff also made visits to 450 farmers and landowners who were identified as having greater horseshoe bats regularly visiting their land. Of these 95% agreed to make changes to their land management to help the bats on their farms. This resulted in more than 16,000 hectares of the Devon countryside becoming better for bats. 

Anna David is the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project’s Lead. Anna said:

“We’ve been able to achieve so much for greater horseshoe bats over the course of the past five years, principally because of the willingness of local people to help us. Thousands of people have taken part in the Devon Bat Survey, hundreds of landowners have helped greater horseshoes by improving habitats across thousands of hectares, and thousands of school children along with dozens of communities have got involved.”

Anna explained that although the project was now coming to an end, its legacy would continue. Anna said:

“It’s been a wonderful experience working on this project, and we are confident that the effort we have put in over the last five years will continue through our project partners, landowners and communities who are now so much more aware of and equipped to look after this special species into the future.

The impact of the Devon Bat Survey has been particularly inspiring with millions of recordings of bats found by the volunteers who have taken part. Through this work we have doubled our knowledge of where greater horseshoe bats are to be found in Devon. Well done everyone who took part in what has been a massive citizen science undertaking. The future for one of Devon’s rarest mammals looks brighter because of it.”

Go to the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project's website to find out more.