Managing hedgerows for nocturnal wildlife: do bats and their insect prey benefit from targeted agri-environment schemes?
1. Mitigating the detrimental impacts of intensive farming on biodiversity requires the implementation of cost-effective conservation actions. Targeted agri-environment schemes (AESs) to enhance populations of threatened species inhabiting farmland have been proposed for this purpose, yet their effectiveness for nocturnal wildlife remains unknown. 2. We assessed whether hedgerow management prescribed by targeted AESs to improve habitat conditions for the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) in England may positively influence the species, the entire bat assemblage and the insect prey of bats. We specifically investigated the responses of bats (occurrence, activity and species richness) and insects (biomass, abundance and diversity) to time since last trimming (from 1 up to 10 years). We explored the mechanisms underlying the effects of AES via changes in trimming regime on bats. Moreover, we investigated the effects of landscape context on bats as we expected that highly mobile species would benefit further from landscape-scale management. 3. Bat species richness significantly increased with time since last trimming. Three bat taxa of major conservation concern in Western Europe substantially benefited from the targeted prescription, namely R. ferrumequinum, Rhinolophus hipposideros and Plecotus spp. Insect family richness and dipteran abundance were also significantly greater at hedgerows that were untrimmed for at least 3 years. The activity of more common bat species (i.e. pipistrelle bats) was not influenced by time since last trimming. 4. Changes in trimming regime strongly affected hedgerow height which directly and indirectly (by increasing prey abundance) influenced bat occurrence, activity and species richness along hedgerows. 5. The activity of highly mobile bat species was mainly associated with a range of landscape attributes. The amount of semi-natural grassland within 0.5 km of the sampling sites positively influenced R. ferrumequinum while the presence of urban areas negatively affected light-sensitive bat species. 6. Synthesis and applications. The implementation of targeted agri-environment schemes can include effective measures to enhance bats and their insect prey in farmland. Although we highlight the success of current prescriptions on hedgerow management, we suggest that their effectiveness can easily be optimized by encouraging farmers to keep hedgerows untrimmed for longer periods (>3 up to 10 years). We also highlight that a multi-scale management approach is required to successfully promote bats in farmland.