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Why time could be up for bats in the belfry

04 October 2019

Scheme reports its success in resolving long-standing conflict


Pipistrelle bats

Pipistrelle bats

BATS are a protected species, but congregations have long sought to be protected from them. Now there are signs that a two-year-old scheme is managing to turn the relationship upside down.

The scheme, Bats in Churches, is run jointly by the Government’s conservation agency Nat­ural England, the Church of Eng­land, the Bat Conservation Trust, the Government’s heritage agency Historic England, and the Churches Conservation Trust. The project has tried to find ways in which to resolve conflicts between congregations, who wish to use churches as places of worship, and bats, who regard them as homes with indoor lavatories (News, 24 February 2017).

Congregations involved report that there has been a “transformation” in the official attitude towards their plight.

At the General Synod in July, Sir Tony Baldry, who chairs the Church Buildings Commission, said that bats “might even prove to be a tool for mission” if the scheme worked.

ALAN MURRAYAll Saints’, Braunston, Northamptonshire

Sue Willetts, a churchwarden of All Saints’, Braunston, in Peterborough diocese, says that her church has been fighting a losing battle against bats for years. “There’s a lady in the village that remembers a stuffed owl in the pulpit in the 1960s. The current volunteer with the Bat Conservation Trust has been recording bat numbers for 30 years here.

“Six years ago, a chimney collapsed at a house near by, and our problem escalated overnight: 400 soprano pipistrelle bats came to our church — known to be the smelliest bats. They’re under the south-aisle roof. They like it there where it’s warm, and the sun can heat it up during the day.”

Bats are in decline in the UK, and have been legally protected since 1981, but they can cause huge problems for churches.

Gerry Palmer, a churchwarden of All Saints’, Swanton Morley, in Norwich diocese, has been dealing with bats for 13 years. “The main issue is mess. It can be difficult, especially when they’re roosting in the summer. They come into the church to warm up, and we have had droppings everywhere — it is the woodwork and the floors that are damaged by it.”

Mrs Willetts said: “We put dust sheets down to stop droppings getting on the floor, and keep them in one place; but, in 24 hours, we had so much condensation that I knew it wouldn’t work. So we covered the floor with white banqueting roll, which allowed us to clean up quite quickly.

“The bats were getting through gaps in the plaster, and peeing and pooing all over the floor, which was disgusting. The churchwardens said we couldn’t do anything about it, and I scoured the internet for a solution. It has taken 21 years for something to change.

“We were in an absolutely desperate situation: we were having to clean the church of bat droppings every time the church needed to be used. It made me think: ‘Why on earth am I doing this?’”

John SalmonAll Saints’, Swanton Morley, Norfolk

Swanton Morley and Braunston were pilots in the initial project, which involved 102 churches. A spokeswoman said that the aim was to have “bats and the community living harmoniously. . .

“The response to the project has been very positive,” she said. “People don’t feel anti-bat: they just want support.”

Mrs Willetts reported: “With the Bats in Churches project, there has been a complete change of view: buildings are given priority for human use.

“Our survey said that there was no need for the bats to fly around the church, so we could block up the entry holes. We originally put sponge in, which largely stopped the bats. . . Now we have filled the holes with a lime-based solution, and it has been so successful.

“It has transformed the church, and we can now use it in the summer months.

“There has been a real change of attitude. . . We could not have done this without the Bats in Churches project. I would say to churchwardens: ‘Times have changed.’”

Mr Palmer said: “In the chancel, we have blocked up the voids to stop the bats getting in, and put bat boxes in the chancel and outside in the void. So far, it has worked to an extent: we know that there are some bats in the boxes.

“There is slightly less mess, but that depends on how active the bats are. Hopefully, by the time spring comes, and the bats have stopped hibernating, it will be sorted. We are crossing our fingers.

“We are very happy with how the project has gone, we have been in this system for many years now. It has felt like we’re fighting a losing battle against the bats.”

Next year, a citizen-science survey will be launched to find out more about bats in churches across the country. Members of the public will be asked to survey churches for bats, and input their data into a national study.

Please note: the work at the churches referred to above has been carried out under licence from Natural England. Bats and their roosts are legally protected so please seek appropriate advice before undertaking work where bats are known to be present.

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