Belfry-Dwelling Bats Are Causing an Unholy Mess in English Churches

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Lesser horseshoe bats roosting in the bell tower of an English church. Although bats are ubiquitous in older churches across Britain, their urine and droppings can lead to significant damage and maintenance woes. . (Photo: Jessicajil/flickr)

A lion's share of historic churches across England and Wales have bats in their belfries — and it’s driving many of these congregations crazy.

To be clear, it’s not the bats themselves that are the issue. Churches and their parishioners are as well aware as anyone of the vital role that these beneficial flying mammals play in the wild. Besides, it just wouldn’t be a creaky medieval church in rural Britain without the requisite flittermice fluttering about up in the tippy-top of the bell tower. With an estimated 6,400 English church parishes doubling as roosting spots for bat colonies — some rather large — they’re not unwelcome. Like rood screens, stained glass and the Royal Arms, bats come with the territory.

What's unwelcome is the costly, unsightly damage caused by bat poop and pee and the strict animal conservation laws that prevent churches from doing something about it. As they should be, bats are a protected species under several pieces of legislation in England and Wales including the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits intentionally obstructing access to an established roosting area, be it a church belfry or a run-of-the-mill attic.

And herein lies the rub. Churches want to do their part and protect bat populations but, at the same time, they also want to protect themselves — invaluable art and artifacts included — from an onslaught of bat droppings. And although the health risks presented by guano are minimal, this incident shared by the Telegraph sounds traumatic for all involved:

At All Saints, in Braunston in Rutland, staff have said that they were struggling to cope after an incident where the then-vicar was forced to shake poo out of her hair while celebrating Holy Communion.

“I think the whole point is conservation laws were needed but now they need to be reviewed and made a little less stringent," Gail Rudge, a lay minster at All Saints tells the Telegraph. “Things need to be kept in balance — the crucial thing is maintaining the balance between our need to have a clean church without any damage and the bats' need to have somewhere to roost. We want to get [the gap in the wall] blocked up but the conservation laws are so strict that there's nothing we can do.”

Guano, whether scattered across pews or falling from above onto the head of a parish priest, is just part of the problem. Bat urine is perhaps even more irksome in a liturgical setting as it contains a high level of uric acid, which can corrode metal as well as stain fabrics and porous stone surfaces like marble.

Rudge goes on to explain that the bat waste cleanup process at All Saints usually requires two volunteers who are willing to dedicate 90 minutes to aggressive surface scouring and bat poop collection. On one occasion, 200 grams (nearly half a pound) of bat excrement was removed from the pews and floors.

In addition to physical damage, the stinky remainders left behind by roosting bats also can discourage would-be parishioners from attending services, further driving down attendance numbers at already struggling rural parishes. Such is the case at St. Andrews Church in Holm Hale, Norfolk, where pungent "bat feces showers" have been raining down on unsuspecting worshippers for some time now.

"The bats may be an endangered species but I think actually that my worshippers are an endangered species as well," the church's frustrated vicar recently told CBS News.

In churches with bats, restoration projects can't fly

Holy Trinity Collegiate Church, Tattershall
Competed in 1500, Holy Trinity Collegiate Church in Tattershall, Lincolnshire, is one of three English churches selected to participate in a pilot program headed by the Bats and Churches Partnership. (Photo: David Merrett/flickr)

So what’s a law-abiding, animal-loving medieval church to do when the bathroom habits of its belfry-residents critters becomes disruptive and destructive?

As the beleaguered lay minister at All Saints makes clear, the options are limited due to conservation laws. However, the Bats and Churches Partnership is giving many wary parishes hope that some sort of help is on the way.

Composed of several relevant parties including Natural England, Historic England, the Church of England, the Bat Conservation Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust, the Bats and Churches Partnership estimates that 60 percent of pre-16th century churches host bat roosts; at least eight of the 17 breeding bat species found throughout England are known to sleep — and relieve themselves — in churches, which have provided shelter for the animals for eons.

As the partnership notes, a majority these churches remain undisturbed by bats although some with larger colonies, like All Saints and St. Andrews, have experienced waste-related woes. Another church that’s struggled with bats is Holy Trinity in Tattershall, Lincolnshire. Although no vicars have been pooped on there, the church has been unable to move forward with much needed restoration work on its 500-year-old doors because carrying out the improvements would limit access to the over 700 bats (!) that roost inside the building.

Church managers hope for relaxed conservation laws

Common pipistrelle bat
This little fellow, the common pipistrelle, is a prolific insect-muncher and the most common of the 17 breeding bat species found throughout the British Isles. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

All Saints and Holy Trinity are two of just three churches selected by the Bats and Churches Partnership to participate in a pilot scheme that aims to implement new solutions that could ease conservation laws while benefitting both churches and bats alike. Nearly 100 churches applied to take part. As the Telegraph explains, bats in participating churches will be monitored “to see whether church managers could be allowed to take action to protect their historic buildings.”

“This is the first time that people have actually looked into making churches more people-friendly as opposed to bat-friendly — at the moment we’re having to clean up after them all the time,” says Gerry Palmer, lay chair of the parochial church council at All Saints in Swanton Morley, Norfolk, the third church participating in the pilot project. “What we’re hoping for is a change in the law so that it’s relaxed — we want to keep our church open so it can be used for the purpose it’s been intended for.”

While it’s not yet clear what methods will be employed at these three churches, casting out bats entirely is not one of them. Instead, the partnership is focused on finding effective ways to limit bats to certain sections of the church where their urine and excrement won’t be as problematic. This could potentially involve building bat boxes and providing other alternative roosting areas.

So why then do churches in England and Wales struggle with bat dropping-inflicted damage more so than bat-filled houses of worship found elsewhere in Europe? As David Mullinger, deputy warden at Holy Trinity in Tattershall explains, it all comes down to medieval architectural methods:

"The majority of European churches have much larger roof space, which means that bats can enter that area without going into the church," Mullinger tells the Telegraph. "In English churches that isn't usually the case — there isn't a lot of space so they come into the main church.”