People are commonly both a cause and solution for many of Europe’s nature conservation challenges, and experiences from a Spanish LIFE project example show how stakeholder coordination can be an effective tool for protecting threatened species such as bats.
Extremadura in south west Spain is a region that supports one of the biggest concentrations of endangered bats in Europe. The area’s broad mix of habitats, wide expanses of forests and high number of abandoned mines have all combined in the past to create a haven for 25 different bat species. These include the rare medium horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus mehelyi) and forest buzzard bat (Myotis bechsteinii). Extremadura also contains Europe’s largest known breeding colony of the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum).
Ten Extremadura bat species are protected by the Habitats Directive, due to their importance at EU level. Other bat species found in (e.g. the Mediterranean Horseshoe Bat [Rhinolophus Euryale]) are considered important on a national scale.
Bats in this part of Spain, as elsewhere on the planet, are very cautious and sensitive animals. They can be easily spooked by human activity such as forest felling or opening up of public access to cave shelters. An expansion of monocultures in agriculture can also interfere with the natural functions of bat habitats. Conservationists from the Extremadura region’s environment authority were aware that these types of issues were having a negative impact on protected bat species, so in January 2005 they started a LIFE project aimed at establishing strategic bat recovery plans.
Attracting an EU contribution of €658 000 (towards €1.316 million of total costs), this four year LIFE project (LIFE04 NAT/ES/000043) has made important progress in improving the conservation status of endangered bats. Coordinated action between stakeholders emerged as one of the project’s main success factors. LIFE provided the incentive and catalyst for bringing together the people, groups and organisations that were needed to act in a unified way to help the bats. By working together in this LIFE project, different bat stakeholders found they gained a greater understanding of each other’s actions and perspectives. A more harmonised approach to bat conservation resulted and outcomes were reflected in the preparation of long-term species recovery plans for Myotis bechsteinii, Rhinolophus mehelyi and Rhinolophus Euryale.
A programme of practical habitat restoration works was then implemented in line with the recovery plans. These involved land owners’ support for measures to prevent disturbance within bat shelters by installing special ‘bat-friendly’ fencing at 13 different cave sites. Habitat structures in one of the sites were also improved using professional technical expertise. In addition, the suitability of six old mining facilities was studied by biologists to assess the amount of repair and stabilisation works required to support bat colonies. Findings from these studies informed LIFE’s support for action at five sites to halt dilapidation, block daylight, and better adapt the former mines as bat habitats.
Watering points are a vital aspect of bat habitats and five new ponds were built near cave entrances with help from LIFE and local land owners. In woodland areas, forest managers supported other LIFE inputs which led to a significant increase in the availability of roosts as 500 new nest boxes were installed.
Another important outcome from the project, which will help assess the long-term conservation needs of Extremadura bats, was an inventory of each bat species in the region. The inventory was carried out by more specialists and sets up a baseline of data on populations and habitats that can be used to measure changes in bat numbers throughout a network of 56 separate locations. The inventory also provides a mechanism to assess the effects of different types of conservation interventions. Such informed approaches to nature conservation work represent good practice.
The LIFE project’s public awareness campaign used information from the bat census to attract interest in, and gain support for bat conservation activity. This stakeholder involvement continues to date through a school’s programme which forms part of the project’s AfterLIFE plan.
See the Layman’s Report (a joint ES & EN publication) for a more in-depth review of the actions by stakeholders on this bat conservation project.