LEARN TO LOVE BATS
Once seen as a menace, bats are now a protected species and old churches have long proved a favourite roosting spot. Can a new initiative persuade people that having bats in the belfry is actually a good thing? Mark Hillsdon finds out
These extraordinary flying mammals enjoy roosting in our ancient churches and occasionally cause serious damage. Can we live alongside them?
It was just before dusk when the bat detector began emitting a series of beeps and warbles, somewhere between a Geiger counter and a Clanger. “Common pip,” says Steve Parker, from the South Lancashire Bat Group, as an indistinguishable black shape flutters across the glowering sky.
My eyes strain as I peer into the gloom, trying to catch a glimpse as it shoots down the side of St Mary’s, a magnificent Grade-I listed church in Cheshire. Set in a large, grassy church yard, edged by trees and overlooking Rostherne Mere, this is bat heaven.
“The best way to view them is get as much sky in your field of vision as possible,” adds Steve, although it’s his expert ears that decipher the next audio footprint, revealing we’ve just been buzzed by a soprano pipistrelle, hawking the night air for dinner.
Bats are the only mammals that can fly (although a handful of other species can glide short distances), using a thin membrane of skin supported by what would be their fingers, with the thumb used for climbing. Their family name, Chiroptera, means ‘hand wing’.
There are 17 species in the UK, all of which are insectivores, with most catching their prey on the wing – although a few, such as the natterer’s bat, are ‘gleaners’, plucking moths and lace wings from vegetation and then flying to a favourite perch to feed.
Steve is passionate about them all, spending most of his spare time surveying and recording them. “I find bats absolutely fascinating,” he says. “I think they’re beautiful creatures… intriguing.”
BATS IN CHURCHES
Bats haven’t always been popular, however. Perhaps because of their nocturnal habits, bats have long been demonised and cast as witches’ familiars or servants of the devil.
Stories of blood-sucking, shapeshifting vampire bats were common across central Europe during the 1700s, and laid the ground for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
And of course, they’ve always been linked to churches, too. “Almost since the day churches were built, they’ve probably been used by bats,” says Phil Parker (no relation), an environmental consultant who specialises in bat surveys around Norfolk, a county with the greatest concentration of medieval churches anywhere in Europe.
Bats love these ancient chapels, which for centuries have often been the largest and most stable buildings in the landscape. And the older the better, because in contrast to newer churches with their tightly fitting dressed blocks, medieval churches are built with flint. Nothing’s square, the mortar flakes, and nooks and crannies begin to appear. “If you can get your finger into a gap, a bat can get through,” says Phil.
Bats will also squeeze in under ridge tiles, gutters and even flashing, but it’s the roof they love best. “For a bat, a church roof is like looking at an ancient woodland,” he says. “There will be hundreds and hundreds of cavities, crevices and all sorts of places that bats can get into.”
With a loss of woodland, and with more barns converted into airtight homes, churches have become important sanctuaries for bats.
“Churches can provide a lot of the features that bats require all year round,” continues Phil, offering somewhere warm, dry and with low humidity for maternity roosts in the summer, while in winter the temperature remains cool and constant, with the high humidity that bats prefer for hibernation.
The presence of bats in churches has come at a cost, though. The main damage is caused by bat droppings and urine, which can stain pews and corrode ornaments, as well as posing a hygiene problem. The biggest offenders are soprano pipistrelles – simply because of the size of their roosts – and natterer’s bats, which tend to fly around inside churches and so spread their faeces.
In the past, church communities tried to drive bats out, often using
cyanide or staging bat-whacking nights to get rid of roosts. Now things are changing, partly thanks to a £3.8m partnership between the Bat Conservation Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project is setting out to help church communities and bats live together by improving people’s understanding of the animals and investigating ways to prevent bats from harming historic buildings.
Some churches just place a plastic sheet underneath the roost but the project is looking at longer-term solutions, including installing ultrasound devices. Originally developed to stop bats crashing into wind-turbine blades, they can create ‘no fly zones’ in specific areas of the church. Bat boxes are also installed to ensure the bats can still roost at the church but no longer cause disruption.
DECIPHERING THE BLEEPS
Back at St Mary’s, the detector bleeps again and a slow, irregular but very loud series of metallic ‘chip-chops’ reveal a noctule bat is nearby. These high flyers of the bat world often soar up to 50m before dropping into a steep dive to snatch moths on the wing.
They’re coming thick and fast, and Steve locates a whiskered bat, and then the soft ticks of a brown longeared bat come through. Dubbed ‘the Whisperer,’ its large ears mean it can make use of passive hearing as well as echolocation to catch insects.
Echolocation is the reason for these otherworldly noises. Bats send out high pitched squeaks that bounce back after hitting an object, helping them home in on their prey.
Over the mere, a rapid, staccato, series of clicks like a machine gun breaks the silence. Somewhere in the gloom, a Brandt’s bat is hunting.
That’s six species in the corner of one Cheshire graveyard; an impressive tally. All the sounds are evidence of a rich nocturnal wildlife that may have thrived here for centuries. With luck – and some enlightened conservation measures – churches and bats will coexist happily in British churchyards for many hundreds more.
LEFT A composite image of a brown longeared bat in flight. Its summer roosts tend to be in churches, old buildings and trees. Winter roosts are often in caves, tunnels and mines.
MAIN Greater mouse-eared bats roost under the roof of a church in Germany. If only our sole bachelor (see box) had such company TOP LEFT At least eight species of bat roost in churches, including the common pipistrelle LEFT Plastic sheeting catches bat droppings at St Lawrence Church, Radstone, Northamptonshire
RIGHT A hibernating greater horseshoe bat hangs in an old Bath stone mine in Wiltshire