Managing the Impact of Bats in Churches

Cathy Wallace

brown long eared bat
A brown long-eared bat which can be found roosting in old buildings throughout the UK (Photo: Chris Damant, Bernwood Ecology)

Bat awareness is essential for everybody working with historic buildings, even if they don’t think they have bats. In most cases the fabric, makeup and even the purpose of old buildings will have altered in the years they’ve been standing, and one no doubt unintended consequence of their complexity, whether original or acquired, is that they can be extremely appealing to bats.

We don't know for sure how many churches currently house these creatures. A study carried out in the 1990s estimated more than 60 per cent of pre-16th century parish churches around England have a winged population of some sort or other. We also don't know for sure why bats are using some churches and not others. But, we can safely say that some of the reasons they are drawn to churches include their complexity: the nooks and crannies that make ideal roosts, the range of microclimates that suit varying functions from maternity roosts to hibernacula, and the churchyards and often wider habitats beyond that are rich in biodiversity, most notably insects upon which the bats can feast.

These charming, winged mammals are very similar to us as human beings in many ways, despite the more frequent comparisons to rodents. Study a bat skeleton and the resemblance to a human skeleton is very obvious, barring the extremely long ‘fingers’ which make up the structure of a bat’s wing. Like us, bats have a long lifespan (relative to their size) and a slow reproductive strategy, producing just one pup a year and investing time in nourishing and raising their young. Inherently social creatures who roost and hibernate in large groups, bats are important in a healthy functioning ecosystem and their presence is good news for biodiversity. But it’s not always great news for the congregation and those looking after historic churches. Bats aren’t house-trained, or church trained in this case, and their droppings and urine can create a cleaning burden and damage the historic fabric of the building, including the monuments.

Bat droppings, which are made up of dried insect remains, rarely create any damage themselves, but if they are left they can encourage algal growth which can damage surfaces, in particular marble and alabaster. Bat urine, however, contains uric acid, sometimes in high concentrations, which can corrode metal, etch polished surfaces and stain light-coloured plastic and porous stone like marble and alabaster.

bat damageBat droppings at St Andrew’s, Holcombe, Somerset

If it’s ever necessary to handle a bat, which would generally involve removing a dead one, wear gloves. But often it’s their nocturnal nature and the myths and legends that surround bats that causes concern, rather than any risk to health.

The Bats in Churches project, a five-year partnership between the Church of England, Natural England, Bat Conservation Trust, Historic England and the Churches Conservation Trust was set up to help churches and their communities live with their bats. As part of this a new licence, the Bats in Churches Class Licence, was created and the project is working with more than 100 ancient churches across England to create bespoke solutions to the issues created by bats.

In trialling a range of solutions, developed in partnership with qualified and licenced bat ecologists, church architects and heritage buildings professionals, we will establish a range of best practice and potential solutions that can be applied to churches around the country and potentially, to other historic buildings. Organisations in other UK regions to contact with queries related to bats include Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency*.

Bat populations suffered significant declines in the UK over the past century and are still under threat from building work and development that affects their roosts and habitats. This habitat loss extends to connecting corridors that act as ‘commuting’ routes for bats, enabling them to forage for food. Domestic cats, wind turbines, chemical pesticides and even lighting have also played their part in affecting bat populations. As a result, bats are now a protected species and they, and their roosts, cannot be interfered with by law. It’s illegal to kill, injure or disturb bats, or to obstruct, damage or destroy their roosts, whether or not they are using the roost at the time. Building works therefore must be organised to avoid committing any of these offences, and it’s surprising how many seemingly minor or unrelated works can adversely affect bats.

Even temporary buildings, changes to security lighting or car park works can have an impact. If in doubt, a great place to start is the National Bat Helpline*, which is part-funded by Natural England to provide free advice for places of worship and dwellings with bats. It’s important to remember that having bats doesn’t necessarily mean works can’t go ahead, but they do need to be taken into account. Where possible, all building and maintenance works should avoid the loss of any current bat roost whether it is in use at the time of working or not. If this isn’t possible, works must be carried out under a bat mitigation licence and incorporate plans to accommodate bats within the new or converted building.

protective sheets st andrews
Protective sheets over the font and pews at St Andrew’s, Great Ness, Shropshire (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)

Obtaining a licence can take up to two months and requires a bat survey report, so for this reason, and other reasons outlined below, the most sensible course of action is to begin any planned building works project with a bat survey whether or not bats are known to be present. Many church buildings professionals will shudder at the mention of bats, not out of any vendetta against the creatures themselves but out of a fear of costly ecological surveys and potential roadblocks to capital works. In our experience the cost of an ecological survey is nowhere near as prohibitive as the cost of essential works being halted midway because bats have been discovered, or even potential legal action because bats have been disturbed.

Historic England, one of the Bats in Churches partner organisations, advises starting with the assumption that bats are present either in the building or the surrounding area, unless you’ve had a survey within the past two years that has confirmed no bats are present. We’d advise calling the National Bat Helpline* as a first port of call. In some cases works may be eligible for a free visit from a Volunteer Bat Roost Visitor which could potentially avoid the need to pay a consultant.

It’s not just large-scale capital works that require licences either. Seemingly minor maintenance work such as repairing or re-painting roofs, doors and windows could affect bat roosts, as could works to walls and underground spaces and treatment of timber. Adding the cost of an ecological survey to capital works grant applications or fundraising targets at the very beginning means that the project won’t come under threat if bats are discovered, because the additional expense has already been factored in.

In certain circumstances it may be possible to carry out works under a ‘class licence’ (such as the Bats in Churches Class Licence) which allows a bat consultant registered with Natural England to directly manage ongoing work with low or temporary impact on bats. This can be a considerably easier and less costly administrative process than submitting a full licence application pack for each and every activity that might affect bats.

For most church communities, finding ways to separate the bats from the areas most used by people, or from historic monuments and artefacts, is generally the best solution to the cleaning burden and general disturbance created by bats, and this can be achieved in a number of ways.

Conversations between the ecologist, the architect or buildings professional and the church are really important to make sure everybody has a chance to have their say, and that all perspectives are taken into account. This includes the perspective of the church, as rural churches with bats often have ageing congregations and elderly churchwardens, and the physical burden of cleaning can become unmanageable. The bats are protected by law, but solutions that focus only on bats at the expense of people won’t be sustainable in the long term. And the heritage of the church is vital and this, along with any significant monuments or artefacts in the church, also needs to be discussed and considered.

Typical Solutions

The Bats in Churches project has worked with several churches to install a false ceiling, sympathetically designed alongside the church architect and other professionals to be aesthetically appealing as well as serving the purpose of separating bats from the congregation. In some cases, such as St Lawrence at Radstone, the ceiling has noticeably lightened and brightened up the interior of the church, improving both its appearance and its use. The bats are free to roost above the ’ceiling’ and come and go via access points, while the people of the church are able to go about their business below without a hefty burden of droppings and urine to clear up.

Other projects centre around offering the bats an alternative space that is less disruptive. One project church in Norfolk has created a bespoke bat space in the tower, complete with handmade Bat droppings at St Andrew’s, Holcombe, Somerset bat boxes, to encourage its small but very messy population of brown long-eared bats away from the areas they currently favour which happen to be areas used by the human inhabitants of the church. For other churches the solutions are less permanent in nature, and more flexible to reflect their needs.

Often the simplest way to protect artefacts and historic monuments is to cover them, but this requires thought and care as to what materials to use and how to ensure the monuments themselves remain a visible and active part of the church. In the 11th century church of St George’s at West Grinstead, West Sussex, a series of marbled statues including one by JM Rysbrack has been sympathetically shrouded in a gauzy white veil, which not only catches the worst of the bat droppings but also complements and frames the sculpture in a highly dignified way.

An intriguing and very rare wooden cadaver effigy, thought to be one of just two in the UK, housed at the church of St John the Baptist in Keyston, Northants, suffered some damage due to bats. For this nationally important artefact the solution was a thorough conservation clean, carried out by a professional conservator, before being housed in a bespoke oak and glass case to protect it from further damage. The case itself also helps make the cadaver more secure, and has been a simple but highly effective solution.

Benefits

Church communities and wider historic organisations are increasingly recognising the benefits bats can bring. An increased public interest in and desire for more connection with nature and wildlife means bats can be a lure to a whole new audience who may not ordinarily visit a church or historic building. Many of our project churches have had great success with engagement activities like school visits, bat nights and bat walks, and this success also stretches to fundraising and donations to the church.

Historic buildings may find their visitor numbers boosted if their resident wildlife is properly recognised, respected and used to engage the public through events, interpretation and education. Bats and other wildlife add character, charm and a sense of place and remind all of us of the interconnectedness of all things and the value of thriving ecosystems. They spark curiosity, questions and creativity and bring back what is often lost in the everyday and the ordinary – the elusive and essential sense of wonder.

Further Information

  • England: The Bats in Churches Project batsinchurches.org.uk and the National Bat Helpline 0345 1300 228
  • Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Environment Agency 028 9039 5264
  • Scotland: Scottish Natural Heritage 01463 725165 / batsinhouses@snh.gov.uk
  • Wales: Natural Resources Wales, Tel 0300 065 3000 (ask for the species team)
  • UK: Bat Conservation Trust bats.org.uk: Contacting an ecological consultant bc-url.com/bat-advice

Source

The Building Conservation Directory, 2022

Author

Cathy Wallace is communications officer at the Bats in Churches project.See batsinchurches.org.uk.

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