Dear Readers, when I hear the phrase ‘Human/Wildlife Conflict’ I think of villagers fighting off elephants who are raiding their crops in Sri Lanka, or oil plantation workers chasing orang utans with machetes. But there are plenty of occasions in the UK when our hard-pressed wild creatures come into rather more contact with humans than is good for either party. I do love a talk that makes me think about something that I’d never considered before, and so it was with this one. Claire Boothby, who works for the organisation ‘Bats in Churches’ has the remit of trying to mitigate the problems that occur when bats roost in churches, and she had some very interesting things to say on the issue.
Bats have always used churches as roosts – they seem to prefer older churches with wooden roofs. One conservationist suggested that those timber beams reminded the bats of ancient woodland, which is where they would probably roost preferentially if there was enough of the habitat left. If the church is surrounded by a nice big churchyard with lots of flying insects, so much the better. In the summer, the female bats like the warmer part of the church as it’s ideal as a maternity roost. In the winter, they may favour places like crypts and undercrofts as hibernation sites.
Many churches have voids in the roof with direct access to the outside world, and in these cases the parishioners might not even know that there is a bat roost. The trouble comes if the bats have access to the interior of the church. My heart is obviously with the bats, but Boothby showed how the droppings from the bats can damage brass memorial plaques, marble tombs and stained glass windows. Many of the volunteers who clean churches are elderly, and the church can lose significant income from weddings and events if the building is soiled. One church in the study closed because of the damage from a substantial bat roost.
What to do? The bats are protected (thank goodness) but the buildings are part of our heritage, and are often also the centre of a small community. Fortunately, Bats in Churches works with all the parties involved. Funded by the National Lotteries Fund, it brings together the Bat Conservation Trust, the Church of England, Historic England and the Church Conservation Trust, and it works very closely with the parishioners and clergy at the church.
It’s easy to demonise those in the churches who are complaining about the bats, but in the video interviews with them, they were all quietly apologetic about even mentioning the problems that they were experiencing. They wanted to conserve the bats, but they were also worried about the churches, one of which was an extremely rare brick-built Tudor church. They were also worried about the cleaning burden that fell on a group of volunteers who might scrub for hours only to find that, when they returned a few days later, things were just as bad.
So, what to do? In churches where the bat population wasn’t causing too many problems, such as Holy Trinity Tattershall, the bats were turned into a feature, with a bat information board inside the church, bat walks outside it, bat teeshirts and a ‘Tatty Bat’ mascot that people could buy.
In churches where the problem was worse, however, there were capital works on the building. Bat surveyors would get an idea of the size of the roost, the species involved and their entrance and exit points. They would be watched to see how they were behaving, and then a plan was drawn up that would minimise the damage in the church without affecting the bats. In some cases, this could involve something as simple as a screen so that when the bats left the roost they were funnelled towards the outside exit, rather than flying around in the church first. In another, a bat box with heraldic symbols on it was created so that the bats had a perfect roost with the same entrance as previously. In the most expensive example, St Lawrence Radstone church had so many bats, and so many droppings, that the church had actually been closed. Part of the church had a twelfth century ceiling, but the bats were in the much later Victorian part of the roof. A plan was drawn up to create a false ceiling in the Victorian bit, so that the bats still had a void to fly around in, but could enter and exit from their original points. This was so successful that the church was able to reopen in 2020, without any damage to the bats. You can watch a video about the project here.
All of the projects mentioned are subject to monitoring for at least three years, and hopefully longer, to ensure that the bat populations haven’t been harmed by the changes. I must say that I was impressed by the imagination and dedication shown by all parties, who clearly wanted to achieve a solution.
Bats in Churches would really like some help surveying churches: you don’t need to be a qualified bat surveyor, and it sounds like an interesting and worthwhile project. They are trying to survey a sample of 1000 churches (they ground to a halt during the pandemic along with everybody else) and, excitingly, you get the loan of a bat detector and are taught how to submit bat droppings for DNA testing. Who could resist? If you think you fancy it, all the details are on the Bats in Churches website here.
Claire Boothby was a very engaging speaker who is clearly passionate about finding solutions to the tricky problems of bats, people and medieval buildings. It was a real pleasure to watch her talk, and if you’d like to do the same, you can find it here. These LNHS talks have been so fascinating and varied that I hope they continue even after the pandemic – it’s clear that they can reach and educate a much wider audience than their London evening in-person events did. Fingers crossed that we can soon have both!
Photo One By John Winfield, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8684692
Photo Two from https://twitter.com/BatsinChurches/status/955473780750594049
Photo Three By Ben Nicholson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9246139