A Special Wood on the Malverns
Johnny Birks - The Vincent Wildlife Trust
Once upon a time, way back in the mid-1980s, the Reverend Edward Cox, a keen amateur naturalist, found an unusual bat ‘on its last legs’ in Little Malvern Priory. He showed the body to members of the Worcestershire Bat Group who identified it as a barbastelle. In winter 2002/2003 a friend of mine visiting from Cumbria, John Martin, identified another barbastelle roosting in a crack in an old quarry on the west side of the Malvern Hills above The Kettle Sings Café. These chronologically well-separated records were the first hints that there might be a barbastelle colony somewhere on the Malvern Hills.
In June 2004 things got more exciting when passing barbastelles were clearly recorded on a bat detector during an emergence count at a lesser horseshoe roost near British Camp (not very far, as the barbie flits, from Little Malvern Priory). I spent several subsequent nights with my detector pottering around the woodland between British Camp and the Priory, recording barbastelles every time. Having gained permission from the landowner to record in Tinkers Hill Wood (part of which is administered by the Malvern Hills Conservators), it soon became clear that this steep-sided, storm-affected woodland was the colony’s headquarters. It was easy to see why they chose the site, with its abundance of old or damaged trees offering roost sites in splits, cracks and beneath flaking bark, and the high humidity maintained by both running and standing water in a deep East-facing gulley (while ‘hotspots’ of Barbie activity can be detected early in the evening in various parts of the wood, we have still not identified which of the many potential roost trees are used by the colony). Also, there are good habitat corridors linking the wood to potential foraging areas all along the Malvern Hills and down onto lower ground to such places as Castlemorton Common.
Tinkers Hill Wood is part of the Malvern Hills SSSI and the owners are sympathetic and have no plans to ‘tidy up’ the wood. Against this background, we were given permission to erect bat boxes in the wood in order to study the preferences shown (if any) by barbastelles for different bat box designs. In February 2004 we installed 120 boxes of four different designs (one off-the-shelf Schwegler 1FF and three ‘new’ designs by John Martin, John Messenger and Colin Morris). These boxes have all been checked every month or two since then, with several local bat workers joining me to help out. Though we have never recorded huge numbers of bats (39 is the current record in a single visit, in February 2007) and the two pipistrelles tend to dominate, we can always look forward to a few interesting surprises: brown long-eared, whiskered, Brandt’s and Leisler’s all occur now and then; interestingly, no barbastelles were recorded in the boxes until a single one was found on 30th August 2006, two and a half years after the boxes were put up! Since then we’ve encountered them in several more boxes (one containing six individuals!).
Despite the exertions involved in carrying a ladder around this steep woodland, it has been a privilege to work there on a regular basis and to wrestle with the challenge of recording bats in boxes cunningly designed to hinder easy identification! I’m grateful to the helpers who have accompanied me, especially David Lee who has turned out most often of all.
Barbastelle image © The Vincent Wildlife Trust