Written by our Senior Regional Surveyor, Hugh Riley.
Bats have had a bad press recently as they have been suspected of being a host of the virus which caused the COVID-19 pandemic. For the residential surveyor what should you do when you come across bats living in the property you are looking at? Bats are extremely common, and it is advisable for surveyors to check any areas where they are likely to roost, especially for owners who intend to carry out building works. Surveyors should thoroughly examine property for any signs of bats, to help prevent any client legal infringement, to avoid fines or prosecution. With bats, timing is everything. Bats hibernate during winter and so one may only be directly aware of their presence during the summer months. Unfortunately, bats are most active at night – long after the surveyor has returned to their roost.
The UK is home to 17 species of breeding bat, almost a quarter of our mammal species. These bats are small, weighing less than 30g. Bats are woodland animals by nature but, with natural roosting sites in trees reducing in number, many have come into houses to roost. UK bats do not construct roosts but use structures that are already available. For several weeks in summer, female bats gather in a maternity roost to have their babies. In winter, bats use hibernation (torpor) roosts. Bats have been discovered roosting in all sorts of places, but there are three broad roost types that are the most common: roosts in trees, roosts in built structures like houses and roosts in underground sites. Bats may also roost in bat boxes.
Bats and their roosts all benefit from European Protected Species legal protection, and special consideration must be given to properties where bats have taken up residence. Despite bats rarely causing any problems, many people have a fear of them and are concerned if they are found within their property. Although bats are not rodents and do not gnaw cables or build nests, they do produce droppings which, in many situations, are the only indication to the surveyor of their presence.
British bats are small: 33 – 82mm long, and prefer to live in clean, cobweb-free areas where there are no draughts. Different species of bat prefer different places to roost. Pipistrelle bats are the species most often found roosting in houses. They often choose tight spaces to roost in. For example, behind barge boards or hanging tiles, between underfelt and tiles, and sometimes in gaps around window frames. A hole 20mm x 15mm will provide access for a bat and droppings can be found on windowsills and walls beneath in the summer. Long-Eared bats usually roost inside the roof void, often along the ridge. Droppings can be found in the loft below the roof apex.
Whilst it’s not always easy to tell if bats are roosting in a property, it is important that the surveyor understands the legal implications of bats in a property being surveyed. The presence of bats can have an impact for anyone selling a home, due to buyers’ perceptions or if they are planning work on the property being bought.
Basic Bat Facts from the Bats Conservation Trust
- Bats are not rodents, and will not nibble or gnaw at wood, wires or insulation.
- Bats do not build nests and, therefore, do not bring bedding material into the roost; neither do they bring their insect prey into the roost.
- All bats in the UK eat insects, so they are a great form of natural pest control.
- Female bats usually have only one baby (pup) a year, so properties do not become ‘infested’. A bat’s pregnancy lasts between six and nine weeks.
- Most bats are seasonal visitors to roosts in houses – they are unlikely to live in that roost all year round, although they are loyal to their roosts and so usually return to the same roosts year after year.
- Bats are generally clean and sociable animals and spend many hours grooming themselves. Health issues can arise from bat droppings.
- Bat droppings in the UK are dry and crumble away to dust with a sheen.
- The threat of rabies from UK bats is extremely low. Rabies can only be transmitted through a bite or scratch from an infected bat, so do not handle them!
Bats and the Law
Due to loss of habitat, destruction of roosts and hunting, bats have been declared an endangered species, meaning that all species of bat in the UK are now protected by law. In England and Wales, bats are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended); the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000; the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (NERC) 2006; and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations are drawn down from EU legislation, but with Brexit these Regulations will remain in force without any amendments until Implementation Period Completion day (31st December 2020). This means that until then the status quo for bats and other European Protected Species will apply.
It is forbidden to:
- Deliberately capture, injure or kill a bat.
- Disturb a bat in a place of shelter or rest.
- Damage or destroy a bat roosting place (even if bats are not inside).
- Obstruct access to a bat roost.
- Possess or advertise/sell/exchange a bat (dead or alive) or any part of a bat.
- Operations which could affect bats may require a development licence from the appropriate statutory organisation prior to the start of works.
Breaking these laws could incur an unlimited fine or up to six months in prison and forfeiting the equipment used to commit the crime. The penalty could be even greater for harming a large number of bats.
Although there is not a specific question on the Property Information Form, under Consumer Protection Regulations (CPR) homeowners are obliged to advise potential buyers if bats are found to be nesting in a property you are selling, as withholding the information may influence a decision to buy and could result in a compensation claim.
Bat Health Issues and Problems
Surveyors should be able to be able to identify the signs of bats, most commonly from bat droppings or urine staining. Droppings will accumulate underneath the roost, and below the points bats use to access a building or a roosting area. Bat droppings are made up of dried insect remains and unlike mouse droppings (which they can be mistaken for) they do not contain any moisture and therefore will crumble easily (and look slightly sparkly when crumbled).
Bat-related health problems are rare. Accumulation of bat droppings, often in attic spaces, can stain ceilings or stored items. The droppings can also cause unpleasant odours, or in the worst cases for those with a weak immune system (such as young children or the elderly) cause a lung disease called histoplasmosis. Whilst for many this may not even be noticeable, on rare occasions the immune system will react, and if left untreated the disease can be fatal.
Care should be taken near bat droppings. As mentioned, there are health risks from allergic reactions, dust inhalation when clearing droppings or gastro-intestinal infection from consumption of droppings. These risks can all be avoided by wearing a dust mask and maintaining basic standards of hygiene. Basic ongoing dropping maintenance can be achieved by spreading newspaper under roosting sites before droppings are disposed of. This should be done when the bats are absent from the roost (September to April) then removed and replaced annually.
Bat urine is not, as such, a risk to human health but, as it contains high concentrations of uric acid, it can corrode metal or cause staining – which the surveyor may see on ceilings. Other problems caused by bats include irritating and possibly unsettling noises and an extremely slight chance of being infected with rabies if a bat bites or scratches you.
Bats and Planning
Surveyors should be aware of the many legal requirements a homeowner may need to fulfill if a bat survey is required as part of a planning application, such as for a small-scale development involving house improvement, extension or roof works. This can be unwelcome news and may cause delay for even minor work as bat surveys and recommendations may take some time to implement.
Local planning authorities are legally obliged to consider whether bats are likely to be affected by any proposed development before determining a planning application.
Depending on the type and location of site, the habitats on the site and in the surrounding area, a homeowner with a specialist ecological consultant may be required to carry out some, or all, of the steps below:
- Undertake a bat survey (at the appropriate time of year) and produce a report of findings, including (if bats were found) details of roosts, where and what species.
- Compile a mitigation plan/method statement detailing any works on site that may impact bats and how they can be mitigated. This is to be shared with architects and/or building contractors.
- Incorporate the bat survey report and mitigation plan/method statement into the planning application.
- Apply for a European Protected Species Licence (EPSL) if bats are to be disturbed.
- If granted, carry out works with ecologist supervision and any other required working methods detailed in a method statement.
- Compliance check to ensure that bat mitigation is being properly implemented.
- Monitor the site to check the response of the bat population to the mitigation.
Living with Bats
Homeowners and bats can coexist without any problems. Although bats do have legal protection, the law does not expect people to co-exist with bats in living areas (i.e. bedrooms or a sitting room). The legal protection afforded to bats means care is necessary if you plan to undertake any building works. It does not mean the works cannot be carried out, rather that special precautions may be necessary.
If a client’s building does not contain bats and they wish to ensure that it stays that way, the homeowner should cover up all entry ways and vents with screens to make sure they cannot enter. Screens should be regularly checked to ensure they are not torn and are tightly fastened.
The easiest way to deal with a bat “problem” is to learn to live with them. Surveyors should advise homeowners to cover valuable stored attic items with dust sheets and to clean out droppings regularly at the appropriate time. Bats can be beneficial, as they are huge insect-hunters, capable of consuming enormous numbers of moths, flies, mosquitoes and agricultural pests. Encouraging the public to learn to live with bats will help protect an endangered species and provides the homeowner with insect pest control.
Bats and Valuation
Many lenders do not have a specific policy on the presence of bats at a property. Every case should be treated individually on its merits when making any recommendations as to lending. Where an inspection reveals evidence of bats, it would be prudent, where possible, to make reference in any “General Observation” section to the provisions of current legislation for the protection of all species of bats. The surveyor should especially advise the lender if any remedial chemical treatment of timbers, re-roofing or building works are required which are likely to disturb the bat habitat. Such work should only be carried out once advice has been sought from the Natural England. This fact may then be reflected in a surveyor’s valuation opinion.
For the RICS Homebuyer report the surveyor should always report the presence of bats in section “F1 Roof Space” with an advisory comment: “Bats are a protected species and are not generally harmful to the structure. However, if repairs are needed in the roof space, more detailed advice on bats is required. This can be obtained from Natural England or your local Wildlife Trust.”