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

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

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 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.


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.

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...

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.

RIGHT A hi­ber­nat­ing greater horse­shoe bat hangs in an old Bath stone mine in Wilt­shire

Mark Hills­don is a free­lance writer with a pas­sion for na­ture and the great out­doors.

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