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Meeting the bats of West Monkton

PUBLISHED: 13:58 25 March 2019 | UPDATED: 13:58 25 March 2019

Pipistrelle bat (c) ACM1988 / Getty Images

Pipistrelle bat (c) ACM1988 / Getty Images

ACM1988

It’s not just walkers and cyclists who enjoy a trip to West Monkton; when dusk falls the village welcomes some very special guests, as Deborah Donner reveals

You may have heard of West Monkton, a small, ancient village not far from Taunton, as distinct from the wider parish of the same name. It’s had a few claims to fame over its 1,331-year history, since the Saxon King, Centwine, first gave it to the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. It has boasted a smattering of Victoria Cross recipients and links with Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall fame. It was also the home of one of the six men who ‘invented’ the weekend, a story featured in Sir Ian McKellan’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

Nowadays, with Taunton creeping ever closer, the village is part of the South Quantock walking trail and boasts a pub serving eclectic South African food, from crocodile burger to ‘Bobotie’ – a sweet beef curry with an egg custard on top, as well as more familiar, locally sourced fare. The old post office closed several years ago, but the beautiful, 12th century St Augustine’s Church, still has the old stocks and whipping post – with a newly installed ‘insect hotel’ and is unsurprisingly Grade I-listed.

Mat and Hayley's home at the Stables, West Monkton (c) Deborah DonnerMat and Hayley's home at the Stables, West Monkton (c) Deborah Donner

But what you almost certainly don’t know, is that this quaint little village is literally going batty!

Judith and Tony Laurance with their bat box (c) Deborah DonnerJudith and Tony Laurance with their bat box (c) Deborah Donner

West Monkton appears to be popular, not only with its human inhabitants, or the tourists who cycle, walk and ride here especially in the summer, but also with several colonies of bats. At least nine different species, including the incredibly rare barbastelles and lesser horseshoe bats, as well as Leisler’s bats have been recorded here recently and most of the people in the village share their gardens with the small, furry, winged residents.

It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the village has embraced its chiropteran population – many houses now boast bat boxes, whilst most gardens are deliberately planted with night scented stocks, aubrietia and borage, to attract the insects they feed on. The village pub, recently held a Halloween fundraiser to adopt a greater horseshoe bat, through Somerset Wildlife Trust and is planning to introduce Bat Spotting walks, followed, naturally by a pint and something to sustain nocturnal enthusiasts, at dusk from May until late August. Meanwhile the villagers are more generally supporting the wildlife trust and organising fundraising events to help it raise money to adopt furry fliers, in the Mendip Hills, the neighbouring Blackdown Hills and in Taunton itself.

The Monkton Inn (c) Deborah DonnerThe Monkton Inn (c) Deborah Donner

Hayley Simmonds, who lives in the village explains: “To be honest we weren’t terribly thrilled when we found out the noises we could hear were bats. We had just moved in and wanted to make some changes to the house, so we had to have a bat survey done. But actually we have really grown to like them – they are such fascinating creatures and they help keep insect numbers down. And it really does make you feel quite special to know you have an endangered creature living under your wing – pardon the pun!”

St Augustine's Church, West Monkton (c) Deborah DonnerSt Augustine's Church, West Monkton (c) Deborah Donner

Peter and Val Mustoe, who run the Monkton Inn, agree: “We noticed them in the late spring of the very first year we took over the pub. There is an established colony here and you just get used to seeing them, especially in the evening just as the sun goes down. They just appear at sunset, almost magically! People seem to know about the lesser horseshoe bats, not far away at Hestercombe House, but they don’t know that West Monkton is actually Bat Central! We get visits from the lesser horseshoes here in the village, and some of them roost here, but we also have Serotine bats as well as soprano pipistrelle and pipistrelles in several nurseries, actually breeding here. There are Myotis species, noctule, and Leisler’s bats roosting and foraging around, and we also have barbastelles, recorded at several places in and around the village. That is really amazing, as until recently, it was thought to be extinct here in the UK. There have been sightings up on Exmoor, but to find we are making West Monkton attractive to such a rare visitor is such an honour. There are bat roosts in the church and across the village. There seems to be a corridor running all the way to Langaller, in the fields across the A38 in a copse, half a mile to the south, and also to Walford Cross to the east of us where they are also seen regularly.”

The village plans do more to encourage the little mammals and hopes to welcome visitors from late spring, to see the creatures for themselves. “We think they get a bad press with all the horror films and fashion for vampire stories,” says Judith Laurance, another village resident. “Lucky for us we have plenty of ancient hedgerows and tree lines, as well as pastures, ponds and springs around here, so it is a varied habitat for them. We are doing our best to plant our gardens with bat-friendly flowers and shrubs. In fact, we put up a bat box last year, with the idea of keeping down the number of mosquitoes and bugs, naturally. So in a way, they are doing us a favour as well. Some people might think we are slightly batty – even perhaps a bit mad – but we like to think of it as being just a little quirky!”

The phone box book exchange (c) Deborah DonnerThe phone box book exchange (c) Deborah Donner

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The bats of West Monkton:

• Pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle

Tiny little bats with a wingspan of 19-26cm, weighing about the same as a twenty pence piece. Very similar to one another, with the smaller soprano having a slightly different behaviour and habitat.

• Noctules:

The highest flying of British bats with a wingspan of 32-40cm, they sometimes appear before sunset. Weighing 18-40g they roost in woodland and often forage over open pasture.

• Barbastelles:

With a distinctive flat face, and a wingspan of 24-29cm they can live up to 24 years. A rare species and not well understood, they forage in wet meadows, woods and river valleys and often change roosts almost every night in the active season.

• Lesser horseshoes:

One of Somerset’s most important breeding bats, with a protected nursery colony at Hestercombe House. They are internationally regarded as endangered. Their bodies are only about the size of a plum but they live up to 21 years. They often fly close to the ground to hunt. This can make them vulnerable to cats. With a wingspan of 19-25cm they feed in woodland edges, pasture and wetland.

• Serotine:

Probably the bat you’d notice first, as its one of our biggest native species. They flap and glide in a distinctive way and often also appear before sunset. They roost mainly in older buildings and rarely in trees. Again, an uncommon bat.

• Leisler’s Bat:

Similar to a noctule, but smaller with a distinctive, dark golden ‘lion’s mane’ of fur around its upper back. They are noisy, fly high and at some speed. They have been found more frequently in Somerset in the last few years but are still one of the county’s rarest species. There is not enough data to estimate their population in England but are classified as “near threatened”. They roost in tree holes (over winter), buildings and bat boxes.

• Brown long eared bat:

Very endearing and distinctive, with very long ears (unsurprisingly!), they emerge well after sunset and follow hedge and tree lines, or streams to forage, usually in woodland. They prefer very cold winter roost sites, such as caves, trees and cellars, but in summer, choose bat boxes or roof spaces. Short lived, they only survive approximately five years. Their population nationally is reasonably stable.

• Myotis:

This is a generic name for several different types of bat, including Natterers bat, Daubenton’s bat, Brandt’s bat and the similar whiskered bat. Their calls are difficult to distinguish on a detector, so further research will need to be carried out to establish which of the Myotis species actually lives in West Monkton.

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