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Is the law batty about bats?

Writing about bats on Halloween seems highly appropriate as they are often associated with the festival. But while sticking plastic bats round your house might be a bit of a joke, sharing your home with the real thing is no laughing matter.

A Devon farm-owner was recently fined for breaching a planning enforcement notice. She was required to demolish a farm building which was built slightly larger than the size specified in the planning consent, but had failed to do so.

However, if the farmer complies with the notice and demolishes the building, she will also face prosecution and the prospect of a six-month prison sentence as well as a large fine – all because the building is used as a summer roost by several species of bats.

It does seem quite ridiculous that someone can face a fine if they don’t do something, but also a fine if they do.

Disturbing bats or blocking access to their roosting place is a criminal offence

The issue is that bats are a protected species. It is a criminal offence for anyone to deliberately to kill, injure or handle a bat, to possess a bat (whether live or dead), disturb a roosting bat, or sell a bat, unless they have obtained a licence. It is also an offence to damage, destroy or obstruct access to any place used by bats for shelter, whether they are present or not at the time.  

A licence can be obtained from Natural England (or its equivalents in Wales and Scotland) to demolish buildings used by bats. But licences will only be granted if there is a satisfactory alternative building the bats can use.  

It seems that this Devon farm-owner is quite happy to put up an alternative building which could be used by the bats – but of course that will need planning permission. And so far the council has not got around to considering the planning application for the new building although it was submitted last February.

So having bats in your attic is no joke. And they are not just confined to old houses in rural areas, some species of bat can be found in more urban areas and they may roost in any type of building. Older buildings with large attics often provide attractive roost spaces for bats, especially when there are loose tiles or loose fascia boards so that they can get in and out easily.

It might be tempting to ignore the law and take action to get rid of the bats – perhaps stopping up a hole they have been using for access. But owners should be warned that bats and their roosting sites are closely monitored, so taking action without getting a licence is likely to lead to trouble.

Bats in your home need not be a problem

Bats do not generally cause any damage to buildings as they do not nibble or gnaw wood, wiring or insulation. They do not build nests so they will not bring nesting materials into the building. They do not bring food to eat in their roosts, and their droppings are dry and crumble to dust.

There are generally no known health risks associated with bats in buildings. Nor do you have to worry about blood-sucking vampire bats in the UK, as all species found here only eat insects. There is, however, a possible risk of rabies infection from a bite or scratch, so bats should not be handled.

If you do discover bats roosting in your property the best thing to do is to contact the relevant statutory nature conservation organisation ( e.g. Natural England) or the Bat Conservation Trust. If bats are found while building work or alterations are being carried out then building work should stop immediately until further advice has been obtained.

Law review could be on the way

The UK Law Commission is currently reviewing the law relating to the conservation, control, protection and exploitation of wildlife in England and Wales. Its website says that “…the legal framework for wildlife management is overly complicated, frequently contradictory and unduly prescriptive. Consequently, the law creates unnecessary barriers to effective wildlife management, including the efficient implementation and enforcement of Government policy. ”

The Commission has recently published an interim statement following its consultations with a wide variety of bodies and organisations. This statement includes various suggestions for law reform, but at present no draft legislation has been put forward.

Whether this will bring about any change in the law which would help the Devon farmer remains to be seen – but it is likely to be a long time before any change will be enacted, so she cannot expect any immediate help.

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