Church on its knees over bats out of hell

Stink from the colony they can't shift drives out dwindling congregation by Geoff Fox TO animal lovers they are an object of rare beauty. To the parishioners of St Hilda's church they are bats out of hell.

The 1,000-year-old church in Ellerburn near Thornton-le-Dale in North Yorkshire has become the unlikely home to the region's largest roost of Natterer's bats.

Under European law it is an offence to damage, destroy or obstruct an access used by bats and a government licence is required to move them.

But the growing piles of droppings on pews, altars and floors could force the congregation out this summer because of the stench.

The parish has even offered to pay 10,000 for a neighbouring barn to be converted into a new home for them. Even then, under existing law they would still not be allowed to shore up the holes where the bats get into the church.

The church's plight has prompted Ryedale MP John Greenway to ask environment minister Ben Bradshaw to change the law.

John Grimble, a regular at the church is one of the leaders of the campaign.

He said: "We are being stitched up by legislation. The bats defecate everywhere, and the smell is repugnant. People are reluctant to go to church as a result.

"We fear the church could face closure in the long term unless something is done because there won't be a congregation."

Mr Greenway, who has raised the issue in the House of Commons, said: "I believe this is a completely unintended consequence of the bat protection legislation. No-one in the government seems prepared at present to bring about a change in the law because would mean primary legislation in parliament."

Simon Christian, conservation officer with English Nature - which advises the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the granting of licences to move bats out of buildings, said: "The church has done a lot of work to try and resolve this problem, which is complicated by the fact there are in fact four species of bats living in the church.

"Our position is that unless the mitigation proposed by the parishioners has been shown to be successful, there would be a potential the roost could be lost.

"Bats are part of our natural heritage. They eat thousands of insects and are an important part of our biodiversity. As far as we are aware there are no serious health hazards associated with bat droppings."

geoff.fox@ypn.co.uk

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