Out of all the animals on Dartmoor it is the bat that has the most unjustifiable reputation of all, mention the word bat and many people associate it with haunted churchyards, witchcraft, Halloween and something that gets tangled in your hair. It is true that you can often see bats flitting around churchyards but likewise they can often be seen in the woods and lanes on the moorland fringes. It was not until recently that money has been spent on research in order to establish the extent of the moorland bat populations and their behaviour, all lot of that work is now being published and it is fair to say that it has delivered some surprises.
But lets start with the bad news and the various superstitions that have firmly attached themselves to the poor little bat. Firstly, you will sometimes here local folk refer to a flittermouse which is the local dialect name for a bat, the word is self-explanatory insomuch it describe the bats mouse-like shape and the fact that it flitters around the sky. This leads nicely to the tradition that if ever a bat was flittering around your head then it foretold that somewhere a witch was trying to put a spell on you. It was for centuries that people believed that bats were witches familiars hence the modern association of Halloween, witches and bats. To have a bat fly into the house via an open door or window was a portent of some bad luck coming your way as was seeing one flying around in broad daylight. In a similar vein – “Flittermouse fly high, tears shall ye cry, Flittermouse fly low, a death doth it sow“, warns of varying degrees of misfortune but how can one win, where else can a bat fly? A belief that probably stemmed from early times was that bats carried rabies which as it turns out in some countries wasn’t too far off the truth. On a more positive note, except for the bat, it was thought that to carry the bone of a bat in your pocket would ensure good luck in all aspects of one’s life. To see bats flittering around at sunset was a sure sign that the next day would be fair and calm according to the old moorland weather lore. Whereas to see a bat flying around the house was an indicator that a storm was on its way across the moor, it was also told that if a bat ever became entangled in your hair it wouldn’t fly off until it heard the sound of thunder. But why did bats become connected with such superstitions? One idea is that being nocturnal they were mostly seen at nights if at all and because of this they were unfamiliar with most people. This lead to a certain degree of misunderstanding of the animal which in turn bred a certain amount of fear. Probably the fact that bats were often observed flitting around churchyards didn’t help much as there was a clear connection with death and ghosts.
In 1838, when discussing the wildlife of Dartmoor, Mrs Bray noted that, “I have noticed three species of bats; the short-eared bat, which is greyish dun; the long-eared bat, and a small bat with black nose and legs, and the fur of a reddish cast”. In 2001 it was recorded that there were 11 confirmed species of bat living within the Dartmoor National Park, these were the; Greater Horseshoe, Lesser Horseshoe, Whiskered, Natterer’s, Daubentons, Noctule, Leisler’s, Common Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, Barbastelle, and the Brown Long-Eared bat. All these bats are living in a vast array of habitats which range from woodlands, pasture, hedgerows, parkland, scrub, gardens, and waterbodies. Since then numerous biodiversity reports and action plans have been initiated by such bodies as English Nature, The Dartmoor National Park Authority, Teignbridge Council and the Forestry Commission to name but a few. The basic problem in 2001 was that nobody knew exactly what the status of the various bat species was on Dartmoor, hence the plethora of reports. At the time it was known that Dartmoor held a large percentage of Greater Horseshoe bat numbers found in the United Kingdom, including the largest known breeding roost in western Europe. It was estimated that this roost consisted of around 1,000 adults and 500 juveniles which is one large bat colony. The distribution of both Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bat roosts within the Dartmoor Nation Park in 2001 can be seen by clicking the thumbnail on the left.
It was known in 2001 that some of the bat roosts on the moor were either being lost or suffering disturbance which was brought about by human activities, re-development of buildings, poor woodland management, the sealing of cave and mine entrances and the use of toxic chemicals in woodlands. In addition the loss or mismanagement of hedgerows also caused concern as these act as flight corridors that the bats use for travelling between their roosts and foraging sites. Add to this the reduction in the bat’s food-source due to intensive farming activities which led to a reduction in wetlands, permanent pasture and a fragmentation of deciduous woodland, hedgerows and tree lines and there was cause for concern. This led to a key conversation initative with three main objectives; to maintain and enhance the current bat populations on Dartmoor, to improve the management of bat foraging areas and communication routes and to increase the public awareness of Dartmoor as a bat stronghold.
This Dartmoor Biodiversity Project began in 2005 and in 2006 it was reported that work had begun in 2003 on a radio-tracking survey of the Greater Horseshoe bats which were roosting in caves at Buckfastleigh (the largest roost in the UK). The results of the work showed that the bats were using a triangle of farmland between Buckfastleigh, Dartmeet and Widecombe-in-the-Moor with the area between Buckfastleigh and Holne being the most favoured. In 2004 and 2005 English Nature funded a project which allowed local officers to help and advise the landowners in this area with management of their lands. A seminar was held in 2004 at which about 60 local farmers and land advisors attended, this was followed up by 26 visits to relevant properties in the area. Typically the landowners were encouraged to take measures that enhanced the bat habitats, these included planting hedgerow trees and reducing the trimming of hedgerows. These measures were intended to provide better cover for the bats as they fly along these corridors which would protect them from natural predators and disturbance. In addition, farmers were encouraged to manage their cattle grazing land and haymeadows with the bats in mind as these types of land supported a large insect population upon the bats would feed. Under the farm stewardship scheme these farmers could recieve financial support to achieve such targets. Practical work was taken out in 2006 around the Scorriton area by the planting of 130 oak and ash trees along about 4.5 kilometres of hedgerows that were on 5 properties. Further tree management projects have been carried out along the lower reaches of the Holy Brook and Buckfastleigh all of which endeavour to improve the bat corridors.
In October 2007 the exciting results of another research project were released, this time a study was carried out into the Barbastelle bat. This bat is said to be the one of the rarest bats in Britain with an estimated total UK population of 5,000 individual bats which are dispersed among 16 known breeding colonies. This project involved trapping and tracking the bats over a period of 120 nights in and around the wooded valleys of Dartmoor. Three populations of Barbastelle bats were found thanks to the survey, these were located at sites in the Bovey Valley, Dendles Wood and the Dart Valley. It was also discovered that on average the Dartmoor Barbastelle bats travelled about 4 km to their feeding grounds where along mature hedgerows they dined on moths. It also appears that the bats tended to divide their feeding areas between individual bats. This £25,000 project consists of a partnership between the Dartmoor National Park Authority, the National Trust and the Woodland Trust with the funding coming from the SITA Trust.
If you would like further information on the various species of bat found on Dartmoor simply follow the links below, also included are links to the Devon Bat Group and the Bat Conservation Trust.
Barbastelle Bat – click HERE
Daubenton’s Bat – click HERE
Horseshoe, Greater Bat – click HERE
Horseshoe Bat, Lesser – click HERE
Leisler’s Bat – click HERE
Long Eared Bat – click HERE
Natterer’s Bat – click HERE
Noctule Bat – click HERE
Pipistrelle Bat – click HERE
Pipistrelle, Soprano – click HERE
Whiskered Bat – click HERE
Devon Bat Group – click HERE
Bat Conservation Trust – click HERE