Norfolk is well known for its churches, many of which appear oversized when viewed alongside the small communities they once served. These large and ornate buildings are a legacy from the late medieval period, when a vibrant local economy supported their construction. Norfolk is also known for its round tower churches, of which there are 123 surviving examples – a figure well in excess of the 60 or so to be found elsewhere across the country. Collectively, our remaining medieval churches are important, with a greater concentration existing here than anywhere else in Europe.
The importance of our churches extends beyond their architectural value. Medieval churches provide roosting opportunities for bats and, with a lack of alternative roosting options in some parts of the county, they may be particularly important in this regard. Bats have had a long association with churches and at least eight bat species are known to make regular use of them for roosting. The last national attempt to quantify the levels of use (published in 1997) suggested that roosting bats were to be found in 6,400 churches nationally, a figure that some bat workers feel is a significant underestimate, not least because the bats may go unrecorded if they are only present in small numbers. There is also anecdotal evidence that use may be increasing.
Bat workers like Phil Parker, working alongside local volunteers, have been investigating the use of Norfolk churches by bats and have surveyed some fifty or so sites so far. Six bat species have been noted, with Common Pipistrelle recorded at the greatest number of sites and Natterer’s Bat recorded in the greatest numbers. The other species recorded have been Brown Long-eared Bat, Soprano Pipistrelle, Serotine and Daubenton’s Bat. Only one of the churches so far surveyed was ‘bat-less’, while 19 supported small roosts, 18 held maternity colonies and eight had significant roosts.
It is where bats roost in large numbers within a church that problems can develop. Droppings and urine falling onto pews and artefacts make poor neighbours of the bats, leading to calls in some quarters that the bats should be excluded. With a lack of roosting opportunities elsewhere, the exclusion of the bats could have a significant impact on their local population. Bats are, of course, protected and the Church has to work within the law to find a solution to any problem the bats might present. The real value of the work that Phil Parker is doing comes from the understanding, on a church by church basis, of how the bats are using the building and what mitigation measures might be appropriate to reduce the impact of their presence, so church and bats can move forward as good neighbours.