Churchyard Species of the Month - June
Lesser Horseshoe Bat – Rhinolophus hipposideros
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!
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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.
Here at St James, as in a growing number of parishes, we are putting into action a plan to manage our churchyard with wildlife conservation in mind. We began the process in a small way in the spring of 2013, building and placing bird boxes in all three churchyards, more than half of which became home to families of blue tits and great tits over the summer. The Churchyard Conservation Project is working to transform selected areas into wildflower meadow and create a habitat for bees and butterflies and other small creatures, which contrasts with the short grass in other parts of the churchyard and mown paths among the flowers and graves.
The Early Days
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.
Inspired by the success of a similar project at Oldberrow church, we decided to develop part of the churchyard at St James as wildflower meadow and the Churchyard Project was born.
In November 2013, a team of volunteers began preparing the wildflower areas, weeding graves, rooting out unwanted saplings and building a habitat pile and a very impressive new compost heap. The process continued in 2014 with regular working parties and events and when we cut the wildflower meadow for the first time at the end of the summer, we celebrated the conclusion of our first year with a working party and barbecue which has since become an annual event. The support of volunteers from the congregation and from the wider community has been, and continues to be, fantastic - we couldn't do it without all your hard work!
The project was initially undertaken in stages. Our first task was to begin to recreate the right conditions for wild meadow to develop, and the plan shows which areas we are managing for wildflowers.
We weren't sure if the resulting 12 boxes would be occupied in their first year, as they were put up rather later than would have been ideal, but seven of them (five at St James, one at the Old Church and one at St Peter's) quickly became home to families of blue tits and great tits. Throughout the spring and summer we posted updates and photographs of our resident families and gradually the idea of doing more to actively protect and encourage the wildlife in the churchyards evolved.
Areas B and C were wildflower meadow in the past, and in 2013 volunteers identified over 40 different species of wild flowers and grasses still present. These plants are gradually re-establishing themselves and during Cherishing Churchyards Week 2017 a group of ecologists identified over 150 different species of plants and animals thriving in the churchyard. In Area D, against the church north wall, the soil is thin and poor with grass and creeping buttercup competing with the wildflowers growing there naturally. Area A is quite sparse in places, with thin grass, moss and patches of bare earth and is particularly colourful when the early spring flowers are blooming. This part of the churchyard was actually the most successful in the first year with lots of interesting things appearing including the beautiful white Star of Bethlehem and a sea of oxeye daisies.
The meadow areas are mown early in the spring and then left to grow, and cut short in late summer after the flowers have gone to seed. The whole area is then kept short and tidied for the winter. The project relies on volunteers to help maintain the wildflower areas, and we have established a regular pattern of working parties in March, July and November when people come along to carry out general maintenance, enjoy each others' company (and hot drinks and cake). The spring and autumn sessions finish with a lunch of hot soup and bacon rolls, and the summer mow is followed by a barbecue in the churchyard. New volunteers are always most welcome - you don't have to be a church-goer to get involved! Details can be found on this website under Services/Events, on our Facebook page
, or look out for posters around the village.