Our village church is medieval, with a few items of Norman origin. The earliest record of an appointment of rector to this parish (then Hale) is 1317. It is a beautiful building and has served the people here for over six hundred years.
For the past eleven or so years, it has played host to a colony of Natterer’s bats, now thought to number some 260 – possibly the largest such colony in the country. The bats roost in the nave and are thus free to defecate and urinate all over the interior of the church, including the chancel.
Floors, walls, furniture, wall lights, brass fittings and bibles all bear the scars of bat activities, and a strong smell of urine pervades the interior of the church. Dust sheets have to be put down after each service, and taken up and shaken outside before the church is used. Even so, bat droppings have to be brushed off the pews before sitting down. And it is not unknown to pick up a bible and watch the urine run off.
The normal use of the church is now seriously compromised. Attending weekly servies is bad enough. Other occasions such as baptisms, marriages and social events, especially if small children are present, bring much more serious anxieties. It cannot be long before the continued use of the church has to be decided, in spite of us having so far spent some £3000 on commercial cleaners.
Bats are a protected species. It is rightly an offence to harm them in any way or to disturb their roosts. The only way forward is to obtain a licence to exclude the bats, but only after they have left of their own accord. Seeking such a licence can be a long, difficult and expensive process, with little chance of success. And the possibility of then successfully excluding these tiny creatures from a centuries old building is equally remote.
We began a campaign in 2005 to bring about a more sensible application of the law covering the protection of bats, and gathered the support of 241 parishes from 19 dioceses. Crucially, we also gained the support of our Bishop, and of the Church of England Church Buildings Council.
This led to a research programme last year by Bristol University, covering a number of churches, including ours. Various devices were used to mitigate the problem caused by the bats, including lighting, radar and ultrasound. The latter proved to be the most effective. It showed that it was possible to cause the bats to leave the church and to be deterred from returning whilst the device remained active.
Further work by Bristol University this year has seen the construction of two lofts in the roof timbers above the nave, covering the most-used bat entry points. It has undoubtedly had an effect by reducing the number of bats entering the main body of the church, though not entirely. Disappointingly, this now seems to be the favoured way forward. We appreciate the degree of help we are receiving but are not persuaded that retaining the bats in the church is the right long-term solution. And, on a more practical level, we do not believe that the problem of cleaning out these lofts – at height – has been properly considered. Church members have neither the resources, nor skills to take on the task, which could endure for many years.
Internal lofts could be an acceptable short-term solution. But surely the right way forward is for Defra to find ways of providing appropriate roosts in the open, combined with the use of ultrasound to deter bats from entering and occupying buildings used by people.
There are some who believe that a church is different from other public buildings; that it is acceptable in this case for people and wildlife to share the same enclosed indoor space: something that would clearly not be accepted elsewhere. We do not agree with them. As our Bishop has said: “Churches are not barns, they are for people”.