On 26th April 2018 the House of Lords debated the Bat Habitats Regulation Bill, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Lord Cormack. The Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd Graham James, spoke in favour of the Bill, explaining why bat roosts continued to be such a problem for medieval churches.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for the Bill. He has pursued a subject which I think can too easily be treated with mirth, but is not at all funny for those congregations in churches where bats sometimes rule the roost. It is reckoned that about 60% of all 16th-century or earlier churches have bat roosts. It is as significant as that. It is the nature of access to the roofs of medieval churches, I think, which causes the bats to go there, rather than their appreciation of our great, historic heritage. In a diocese such as mine, with 640 churches, of which 550 are medieval, there are places where the bat population outnumbers not simply the congregation but our total number of parishioners.
I used to recommend the regular use of incense, partly because I am very high church and love incense, and bats appear to be very Protestant, as they normally departed where incense was used. But even that is not now guaranteed to do the trick. Clearly, bats have gone up the candle in their churchmanship.
I will disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, because that is as far as my theological disquisition will reach: I have not done my biblical homework as well as he has.
Of course bats should be adequately protected, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said. We agree on that, and bats and human beings can get on, as they do in many of our churches. Of that 60% of medieval churches where bat roosts are found, many situations are tolerable, but in some churches very large roosts prevent the church operating effectively for its primary purpose as a place of worship, a house of God and a place to gather and build community. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, pointed out, altars, monuments, pews and fonts can all be adversely affected by bat droppings. But it is the impact on what a house of God should be and do that is the most important.
All over Norfolk there are barns once used by bats that have been turned into beautiful homes for human beings, and their new owners do not want to share their property with them—so the bats have moved to medieval churches, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, pointed out. There seems to be an assumption among some that churches are barns rather than houses. I am fairly sure that if bats started to roost above us in this Chamber or, perhaps, deposited their droppings daily on the green Benches in another place, they would not remain there for long. I have often thought that that may be the thing to arrange to manage the situation. It is a testimony to the uncomplaining generosity of so many Church of England congregations that they seek to manage the presence of bats in their churches as well as they do. But I know of churches where people have come to the end of their tether and where a glorious building has become increasingly unusable for worship or any other community purpose. That cannot be what we would desire and cannot be the best way in which to enable bat conservation.
I have a great deal of sympathy for this Bill. I do not see why places of worship should be different to the Houses of Parliament or a barn converted into a habitation for human beings. I sometimes think that we tolerate that because we think that houses of God are not inhabited, but they are—and not only by God. They are inhabited by people, as well as past benefactors and worshippers who are part of the communion of saints, and they deserve some respect, too.
Church volunteers who cover and uncover monuments and clean on a daily basis need all the help that they can get, and they sometimes feel very frustrated by the bureaucracy surrounding this issue and are distressed and depressed by the financial burden. While bat deposits are common enough, they do not normally take monetary form or come via a standing order or direct debit, yet they add very considerably to maintenance and restoration costs.
It is a tribute to our congregations that they are engaging with the bats and churches project, which the Church of England is partnering with Natural England, Historic England, the Bat Conservation Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust. It is a five-year project intended to work with some of the most severely affected churches, finding ways in which to protect church buildings without harming bat habitats. One challenge is to recruit hundreds of volunteers who will help to care for these churches as well as the bats that live in them. However, I know in my case in Norwich that some of the churches affected are in very sparsely populated rural areas, so quite where hundreds of volunteers will come from, when there are not even hundreds of people living within a 10-mile radius, I am not sure.
It is certainly true that there are practical solutions and there is much to be discovered, as we have heard, about the environments that bats prefer. Three churches, including one in my own diocese, All Saints, Swanton Morley, just outside Dereham, have been involved in an initial pilot. If the Heritage Lottery Fund provides the money, it is expected to run for five years from this autumn. I wish the project well—I hope that it will have success—but much has been tried in this area without fully solving the basic problem.
I am now in my 19th year as Bishop of Norwich, and bat roosts in churches have become more problematic with every succeeding year. I am hoping that the bats and churches project will provide some solutions, but it is not incompatible with the aims of the Bill, which is a reminder in itself just how serious this problem is—and I pay tribute to the noble Lord for pursuing this vexed matter so assiduously.