For the first time in over 1,000 years a church has had to suspend services for the foreseeable future unless permission is granted by the authorities to remove bat roosts which have desecrated the church for over 10 years.
St Hilda’s Church in Ellerburn near Pickering, North Yorkshire has been attempting to rid bats from the inside of the church for many years but without success. A battle has been taking place between the need to protect national heritage and a place of worship for over 1,000 years and the need to safeguard bats which are a protected species. However, the congregation has had to surrender the church to the bats for the remainder of the summer and unless permission is given to alter the use of the church by the bats by Natural England the long term future of the church is in jeopardy.
Outside church of Ashley Burgess (representative of Parochial Church Council), Liz Cowley (Church Warden) and Jonathan Mortimer (solicitor)
Jonathan Mortimer, a solicitor at Raworths Solicitors in Harrogate has taken up the case. Mr Mortimer’s own home was plagued with bats earlier this year and he was able to obtain a licence to rid them from his home. Mr Mortimer wants to do the same for the church and says:
“When I heard of the problems being experienced by the Church I felt compelled to do what I could to save this church knowing myself what problems and damage can be caused by bats. However, what I have had to put up with is nothing compared to St Hilda’s Church which is having its history ruined by the bats and is facing closure. It is presently home to hundreds of bats who effectively use the inside of the church as a toilet and it’s a scandal. The endangered species here is not the bats but the congregation”.
St Hilda’s Church is over 1,000 years old and from the saxon period. It is ordinarily open for two services each month and other Christian festivals. Bats started to cause problems within the church years ago. There are numerous roosts within the church roof but the substantive damage is caused by the bats accessing their roosts through the internal areas of the church.
Liz Cowley, the church warden describes the problems experienced:
“The walls and floors are covered with bat droppings. They are even on the altar. Bat urine is sprayed throughout the church so that nearly all the woodwork within the church is damaged and pools or urine form next to the lectern. Damage has been caused to the artifacts, stone flooring slabs, pews, choir stalls, pulpit and the font. The smell is atrocious. We have tried to keep the church clean but we have lost the battle. Some of our helpers have become seriously ill by coming into contact with the bat waste. Services have had to be cancelled and we cannot realistically open the church for services”.
Bats are protected species in accordance with The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and they make it an offence to take any steps to disturb a bat roost even after the bats have left for the winter. In the circumstances, the church has been in negotiations with Natural England (the Government authority responsible for policing the conservation of bats) for many years to obtain a licence to exclude the bats from the inside of the church. Many of the bats access their roosts via the outside of the church and live in the roof void which the church does not take issue with. However, after many years of negotiation the church has not been able to obtain a licence to stop the bats using the internal space.
The church has spent almost £10,000, which has been raised by local donations, in creating alternative new homes for the bats in anticipation of the bats being removed from the inside of the church and followed the guidance provided by Natural England. In particular, a farmer has allowed works to be carried out to a local barn and a potential roost has been created within the lychgate which even has central heating. However, Natural England has not accepted that the proposed alternatives provide sufficient certainty of a new home for the bats.
Bat droppings on alter
Mr Ashley Burgess, a representative of the Parochial Church Council, says:
“Ironically, the church is surrounded by ancient woodland which is the natural habitat for bats and yet we are forced instead to make provision for the bats within our buildings. The financial cost to us has been huge. Nobody wants to sit in a bat stained church and our congregation has dwindled as a result. We even had to put up with being bombed by bats flying around the church during a carol service with the congregation holding lit candles. We believe in protecting wildlife but surely our human congregation have some rights as well as the bats”.
The local Environmental Health Authority have recently been called in to inspect the church following concerns raised by the congreagtion and made specific recommendations in an attempt to establish an acceptable health status of the building for the congregation”.
A licence to remove the roost was granted in 2008 but later revoked by Natural England for reasons which are unclear. However, a further licence must now be issued following a further application having been made last week. Jonathan Mortimer says:
“This is the final chance to rid the church of the bats and to allow this ancient building to survive. If the licence is not granted we will consider an immediate application to the Court for a judicial review. It cannot be right that a piece of our heritage and an important part of the local community should effectively be handed over to the bats as a full time roost. The challenge is now with Natural England to accept that the protection of bats in this case has gone too far and that the building and the people who use it for regular worship must come first. It is simply not acceptable to effectively put the cost of running a wildlife sanctuary onto this rural congregation”.
Urine on stone floor in church
Mr Paul Mothersdale, the rector of the church says:
“I am disappointed that Natural England have failed to accept the need for worship to continue in a respectful manner in this beautiful old church. Our voices have been swamped by those who have never set foot in the Church except to count the bats in and out. Our congregation believes in the protection of wildlife and that we have done everything we can to ensure the continued presence of bats in the area but there is no sign of any recognition of our efforts by Natural England”.