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New bat cameras installed at Woodchester Mansion

PUBLISHED: 12:38 30 October 2018 | UPDATED: 12:38 30 October 2018

Woodchester Mansion (c) Simon Pizzey

Woodchester Mansion (c) Simon Pizzey

New bat cams installed at Woodchester Mansion help study protected breeds while also becoming an added attraction for visitors. Jo Barber looks at the work of one of the UK’s foremost bat experts and the mansion’s valued volunteers

New bat cameras at Woodchester Mansion, near Stroud, are offering the public the best view of the wild nocturnal creatures in the whole of Britain.

High definition cameras with infra-red lighting, and up-to-the-minute HD screens, have just begun showing visitors to the Cotswold property superbly clear views of rare colonies of both greater and lesser horseshoe bats.

Installed at the same time as the mansion’s recent security cameras upgrade, the state-of-the-art bat cams enable people to watch the endangered species from an observatory below the tiny creatures’ roosts in the roof.

Very much involved in the project was one of the UK’s foremost bat experts, Dr Roger Ransome from nearby Cam, who has been studying the mansion bats since 1959. His work, supported by many voluntary helpers, is the longest continuous study of any mammal by a single person in the world.

Dr Ransome’s studies, and the books and papers he has published from them, have depended largely upon records from the Woodchester Mansion colony.

He said he owed a huge debt to all those who had helped him over the years. “We can now count the number of bats automatically again,” says Dr Ransome. “These new HD cameras allow us to check which types are being counted.”

Recordings from the replacement equipment are greatly enhancing the project’s behavioural research aspects and mansion volunteer Dr Ray Canham says, “A lot of what we know about the greater horseshoes the world knows as a result of Roger’s studies here, and it is continuing.”

Woodchester Mansions dining room, showing centring and windows on the south face (c) Simon PizzeyWoodchester Mansions dining room, showing centring and windows on the south face (c) Simon Pizzey

An automatic count in July revealed nearly 600 lesser horseshoes and over 200 greaters, which was marginally down on the numbers in 2017.

But with the lesser horseshoes, for example, only measuring two to three inches in size, the new cameras have really come into their own because of the detail they reveal.

“The images are so clear you can almost read the numbers on their rings,” Dr Canham says. “They basically use the mansion as their maternity ward.

“Visitors are amazed to see just how active the bats are during the daytime – but this is not surprising when we realise that many of the bats in the colonies have babies to look after and, as most of us know, babies of whatever mammal are high maintenance!”

Sightseers in the bat observatory below the attics can also see roost heaters which maintain a constant high temperature to ensure conditions are ideal for nurturing the baby bats, known as pups.

The myth of bats being torpid in the daytime has therefore been well and truly smashed.

“People imagine the bats are going to be asleep, but they are quite clearly grooming and fluttering around,” Dr Canham says.

Dr Ray Canham at the new screens in the bat observatoryDr Ray Canham at the new screens in the bat observatory

Woodchester Mansion also offers sell-out evening bat walks in the summer, when the creatures can be seen flying out of the building at dusk to feed. Talks are given, too, by Gloucestershire Bat Group.

Most horseshoes, however, leave Woodchester Mansion in early October to spend the winter hibernating in disused stone mines within about 25 miles of the building.

But, bats aside, grade one listed Woodchester Mansion offers callers a timewarp experience because it was abandoned unfinished in roughly 1870.

Fast forward to 1987, however, when Stroud District Council rescued the property before the independent Woodchester Mansion Trust was formed in 1989 to care for it.

Over the past almost 30 years the trust has since developed its own unique conservation philosophy. It has the prime aims of preserving the surviving fabric of the house, although never completing it, and also adapting it for public access.

The idea was to balance the mansion’s magical sense of desertion with the need for paying visitors to help fund any works at all, Dr Canham explains.

“Fireplaces are suspended high in walls far above three floorless storeys” he said. “But safety decking has been laid on top of stone ceiling vaults to enable sightseers to safely access the upper levels, including the stunning top corridor.”

Bats hanging around in the roof (c) Woodchester Mansion TrustBats hanging around in the roof (c) Woodchester Mansion Trust

So far major phases of work have run to about £850,000, including repairs to the grand stair and to the rainwater system with its gargoyle spouts, re-roofing the west range, and development of offices for the trust and accommodation for the caretaker.

Yet there is a wider role for Woodchester Mansion too, in education and training, much of it through its patron HRH Princes Charles’ Prince’s Foundation.

Student visitors include learners from the University of Bath’s MSc in the Conservation of Historic Buildings, and the City of Bath College’s stone masonry students have hands-on involvement.

Looking towards its 30th Anniversary next year (2019) Woodchester Mansion Trust, and especially its loyal volunteers, have just begun to plan a series of special events that will include contributions from the bat project.

Woodchester Mansion trustees and supporters are always mindful, however, that there are major challenges to be faced in raising the roughly £4 million still needed for their whole project to be completed.

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