The lesser Horseshoe Bat is a charismatic little mammal. It's is the only bat species in Ireland to live up to its stereotype of hanging freely by its feet and wrapping its wings around its body.
One of nine of our bat species, its range today is confined to six counties along the west of the country, Kerry, Clare, Limerick, Galway, Mayo and in a small number of sites in the south west of County Cork, though it was once more widespread.
The most recent population estimate is for the species in Ireland is that there are 12,790 individuals here and although numbers are increasing, their range (distribution) is contracting. This has been put down to habitat loss and fragmentation due to intensification of agriculture. This loss of habitat has led to an unfavourable/inadequate assessment of the lesser horseshoe bat in the most recent Article 17 report to the EU Commission (periodic reporting on the conservation status of habitats and species).
Last I visited a hibernaculum (a roost for bats) in our Glengarriff Nature Reserve. It was such a joy to find twenty or so Lesser horseshoe bats suspended from the ceiling of this simple construction, consisting of an adapted sewer concrete mould.
I had seen some simple building adaptations on other sites in Killarney NP (an abandoned church) and an entry and exit cover to the basement of the ruins of Moore Hall in County Mayo. Simple interventions like these had made a significant impact on roosting sites but were also complimented by good habitat management to ensure that there was adequate foraging sites around the roosts for the bats.
The lesser horseshoe bat roosts in old houses, outhouses or old farm buildings. In winder it hibernates in caves, disused cellars (like Moore Hall) and mines. For foraging, it likes broadleaved and mixed woodland, liking to forage in woodland and scrub.
Our National Parks and Wildlife Service has for some time partnered with the Vincent Wildlife Trust. The Trust manage a dozen bat reserves in Ireland on behalf of NPWS. More recently and as a result of the declining conservation status of the lesser horseshoe bat, the Vincent Wildlife Trust and NPWS have developed a Species Action Plan (SAP) for the Lesser horseshoe bat.
This is first plan of its kind in Ireland and was developed with extensive participation of a broad range of stakeholders, including the six local authorities where the species is present. The plan aims to guide and provide direction towards the implementation of practical conservation measures of the species over the next five years (2022-26).
I warmly welcome this plan. While some of the site specific measures contained in the plan are being implemented, wider challenges on landscape level measures will prove more challenging and will need to overlap into County Biodiversity Plans, the CAP Strategic Plan, the National Biodiversity Action Plan and EU funded biodiversity programmes such as LIFE Wild Atlantic Nature.
The NPWS Farm Plan scheme has proven to be hugely popular among farmers and on designated sites where the lesser horseshoe bat is the qualifying interest, measures can be implemented at farm level to improve connectivity of foraging sites, address predator control as well as improving winter and summer roosts.
The steering group to implement the SAP will convene in September. We know what works at a local level but the bigger challenge remains that of addressing the connectivity of suitable habitats. We know too that improving the habitat for this really cool bat species will also improve biodiversity outcomes generally and the fortune of other species.
It is my hope that this inter-agency and community-level approach will reverse the decline in the conservation status of the Lesser horseshoe bat and possibly even extend its range to other counties once again. This plan is a positive step forward in leading on the recovery of the species' range and habitats.