Transcript for ‘Beasts in the Belfry’

DAVID: To attract mates, the adult insects create a tapping or a ticking sound that can sometimes be heard in the rafters of old buildings on summer nights. And therefore the Death Watch beetle is associated with quiet, sleepless nights and is named for the vigil being kept beside the dead.

[Bells ringing rounds]

CATHY: Hello, I’m Cathy Booth and this is the Fun with Bell’s podcast. Today I’m speaking with David Bagley.

DAVID: Thank you Cathy, for allowing me to talk about Beasts in the Belfry. In which I’ll take a brief look at some of the species of wildlife which find their way into our bell towers. I’m not going to cover wildlife outside churches and towers, in other words, churchyards. This is a big topic and well beyond my knowledge, as I’m no Chris Packham. I did once find and handle and a young grass snake in the churchyard at Shrawley in Worcestershire. God’s acre is often a wonderful place for things to live, especially if it’s not too manicured. But for this podcast, I’m just going to talk about what we might share our bell towers with. Now I’ve rung at over 1,500 towers, and I’ve been into the belfries of quite a few of these. As well as several I haven’t actually rung at. But when I do visit somewhere, I tend to keep my eyes open as you never know what might be seen. As bell ringers, clearly we find ourselves in bell towers, but have you ever wondered what also might be up the towers or in the churches? Now, some of these are welcome visitors, but others are unpleasant or downright unwelcome. Let’s look at insects first, followed by mammals and finally, birds. I’ll throw in a few examples of plant life later on, just for good measure.

CATHY: Okay, David. So you’re starting with insects. What insect life is there to be found in towers?

DAVID: The first insect I want to mention is a little fruit fly, sometimes called a banana fruit fly. And at certain times of the year, they form swarms in towers as they like The atmosphere found in belfries. Fruit flies don’t live long. A female can lay 500 eggs at a time. And once they hatch, the new flies can start reproducing more flies within 12 hours. You can see how quickly it takes for them to swarm in vast numbers. At Tewkesbury Abbey, we get infestations of these every October. And in the last few years, we have had to get professionals in to deal with them. About two or three kilograms of dead flies are removed after treatment, which relates to several hundred thousand of them. We did try using an ultraviolet fly killer, but it blew up as there were just too many flies for it to deal with. Fortunately for the ringers, they tend to swarm around the lights on the upper stairs and in the belfry. They’re most unpleasant to have to walk through, though. Now just why they swarm in towers isn’t understood as there is nothing for them to eat. The cluster fly is another unwanted species found in bell towers and elsewhere in churches. They have a habit of forming clusters, hence their name, often in old buildings. During the summer months, they live in open fields where they are parasitic on earthworms.

DAVID: The larvae live in the soil, emerging as adults at the end of the summer. In the autumn, they hibernate in dry sheltered areas such as under loose bark or in hollow trees. The survivors of the winter would then emerge and return the following spring to the grassy fields to continue their life cycle. However, with buildings close to open spaces and fields, it’s quite common in the autumn for these flies to congregate in large numbers on the outsides of buildings. But as the afternoon temperatures begin to fall, they tend to crawl inside, finding small crevices to hibernate. In the tower, you will probably find you have to hoover up several each time you go ringing. Fly spray will get any which are flying around, but not those that are hiding in the crevices. So only a really deep clean will eradicate them. You can get cluster fly smoke bombs from suppliers like Amazon and these do work well, but just make sure that your towers fire alarm system, if there is one, is disabled. Otherwise, there might be a few embarrassing questions to answer from the local fire brigade. Getting rid of them is probably impossible as fresh insects will always find their way in through the tiniest of crevices. They’re not harmful, just a nuisance.

CATHY: Have you ever come across bees?

DAVID: Several churches I have visited are home to a colony of bees. Sometimes these are honey bees which have swarmed and ended up in the church. In my local area, I know of active beehives at Hanley Swan, Bredon. And I know of another one at Colwall where they sometimes find their way into the ringing chamber and can’t find their way out, usually being found buzzing around or dead in the ringing chamber window. I well remember having to carefully walk through a large cloud of swarming bees outside the church at Ewyas Harold on a Hereford ringing course a few years ago. In 2019, a large bees nest was removed from the roof of St Nicholas’ Church in Piddington, that’s in Oxfordshire. And honey was dripping down the walls and services were being disrupted by the insects buzzing around the congregation. Sometimes bees in churches are not there by accident. At Swindon Village, near Cheltenham, many years ago. The tower Captain Martin Hawkes, used to keep his bees in the belfry and had a couple of hives up in there. And at the Church of Hemington in Somerset. There are panels inside the church which are access panels into beehives purposely set into the church walls some 20 feet up in the air. A hole on the outside of the wall allowed the bees to get in and out. It’s been a few years since these hives were occupied though. Honey from bees was an important commodity in the past. Wasps may also build their nest in cavities in church buildings. I did spot one once in the roof space of the porch at home at Strensham a few years ago, but I can’t think of any examples causing a nuisance in towers.

CATHY: What other insects have you come across?

DAVID: There are some less pleasant insects or more specifically beetles to be found in towers if you know what to look for. When Bell hanger Neil Thomas was working in the tower at Breden, he spotted the larva of an assassin beetle. I suppose that my description of this little beetle ought to come with a content warning as it’s a rather unpleasant little critter. There are some seven species of assassin beetle native to the UK, all about a centimetre in size. And as their name suggests, they kill and feed on other insects. Basically, they pounce on their prey and using a sharp, hollow tongue called a rostrum, they inject enzymes into their prey which break down its insides, which it then sucks back through the same tube. You can see why it gets its name. I do apologise if you are listening to this, having just had your supper.

CATHY: Any other insects?

DAVID: One insect you would probably have noticed at the lower reaches of your tower are ladybirds. These are beetles, and they range in size from 1 to 10 millimetres. They are round or oval and adults are the most familiar species of brightly coloured red or yellow wing cases with dark or light spots on them. There are more than 40 species of ladybird considered as resident in Britain. About 20 of these are small and dark in colour and so often not recognised as ladybirds. Many ladybirds are predatory feeding on aphids and other insects. They can help keep these insect pest species under control and as such they are great friend to gardeners. The harlequin ladybird is a non-native species that became established in Britain about 2004, and it is now one of the most commonly seen ladybirds. Adults are 8 to 10 millimetres in length, very variable in colour and markings. There are two common forms which are black with two red spots or orange with 18 black spots. There is some evidence that has caused decline in some native ladybirds due to competition for food. It is however, not desirable nor necessary to attempt to control them as they too feed on aphids. Most adults overwinter in sheltered places, often in large groups. And these overwintering sites can include inside of buildings. And the harlequin ladybird can be present in quite large numbers there. Many towers have hibernating groups, often seen around the window or door frames.

CATHY: What about Death Watch beetles?

DAVID: The Death Watch beetle is definitely not what you want to find in a bell tower. It’s a species of wood boring beetle that sometimes infest the structural timbers of old buildings. The adult beetle is brown and measures seven millimetres long. Eggs are laid in dark crevices, in old wood, inside buildings, trees and inside tunnels left by previous lavae. The lavae bore into the timber, feeding for up to ten years before pupating and later emerging from the wood as adult beetles. Timber that has been damp and affected by fungal decay is often soft enough for them to chew through. The larvae of death-watch beetles weaken the structural timbers of a building by tunnelling through them, and attempts to treat them can involve fumigation of the building. However, this also affects spiders and other insects and requires the entire building to be sealed so that the gas doesn’t escape, which may be impractical. Surface spraying can be used, but it is ineffective against beetles which have bored deeper into the timber. Infestation by these beetles is often limited to historic buildings because modern buildings tend to use soft words for joists and rafters instead of aged oak timbers, which the beetles prefer.

DAVID: To attract mates, the adult insects create a tapping or a ticking sound that can sometimes be heard in the rafters of old buildings on summer nights. And therefore the Death Watch beetle is associated with quiet, sleepless nights and is named for the vigil being kept beside the dead in a church. By extension, a superstition has grown up that these sounds are the omen of an impending death. Now, if you suspect your tower has these, then you need to seek urgent advice. In churches, treating timber for beetles requires permission from the Archdeacon as it is what is called a list B item. It doesn’t require a full faculty. If left untreated, then this can cause sufficient damage to structural timbers to make repairs extremely costly. If a bell frame is affected, then this may well lead to the bells being declared unringable. I remember going for a quarter at Cloddock in Herefordshire, but having to give up shortly after starting because the church had only recently been fumigated and the smell was completely overwhelming.

CATHY: Any other insects, David?

DAVID: Of the insects which are seen in towers, butterflies are also easy to see. Of the 59 species of butterfly in this country. It is only the small tortoiseshell and the peacock which regularly overwinter inside buildings. This can be in ringing chambers or other areas in the tower, including inside bells up in the crown. They seem to remain there even during ringing. They come into the towers during late summer and early autumn, when it is still warm outside and the churches appear to provide suitably cool, sheltered, dry conditions. However, such butterflies may be woken prematurely by high indoor temperatures and this prevents a major problem for the butterfly as the outside weather conditions may be very hostile. And there’s little nectar available in the gardens in the winter. At some towers, they hibernate in larger numbers and at Malvern Link, we regularly had them flying around when we were ringing and the standard of the striking often fell due to the distraction they caused. And this led to the joke that it didn’t like bad ringing and were flying around to complain about it.

CATHY: Any other flying insects?

DAVID: It’s not just butterflies, of course, as several species of moth also like the environment of bell towers to hibernate. At Pencombe Church in Herefordshire a few years ago, I was helping Richard Clements on the Hereford ringing course in this tower and Richard is a very keen Lepidopterist and knows a huge amount about moths as well as ringing. And Richard pointed out a Herald moth sitting on the ringing room wall. It’s quite brightly coloured with orange patches on its back, which meant that it wasn’t all that well camouflaged on the whitewashed ringing chamber wall at Pencombe. It’s quite a large moth being nearly two inches in wingspan. During the winter, the Herald moth hibernates in dark cool structures just like the ringing chambers of Herefordshire Towers. It’s one of about 2,500 different species of moth in Britain. Compare that with just 59 species of butterfly.

CATHY: What about bats?

DAVID: We’ve all heard of bats in the belfry, so I’m not going to go into much detail about bats. But their high protection status means they do have a very significant status in churches and other buildings. While a number of bats can go unnoticed in the church, larger roosts can pose a range of challenges for those looking after the building. Churches that are planning renovation or building projects need to take bats into account by law. The installation of the newly refurbished bells at Braintree was put on hold until the end of their bat roosting season after delivery to the church, the bells were just put in storage until they could be hung. Some towers have large colonies of bats. The largest I know of in my area is at Abbey Dore in Herefordshire, where they’re even seen hibernating in the stairs up to the ringing room. Llanfeugan, which is near Abergavenny, has not only got a superb ring of eight, but also a large bat presence in that tower as well. Bats and their roosts are protected by law. But help and advice is available and churches are encouraged to seek the support of bat groups when dealing with bat issues. With the right help and support, practical solutions can often be found to problems caused by bats in the church.

CATHY: What problems are caused by bats in the church?

DAVID: One common problem relates to droppings and urine. Bat droppings usually accumulate underneath the roost and below the points the bats use to access a building or roosting area. Scattered droppings are left by bats when flying, which they sometimes do in the nave and aisles of a church they might be using for roosting as well in ringing chambers or belfries. Bat droppings are made of dried insect’s remains and crumble easily. The droppings themselves rarely cause damage, but if they are left they can encourage algal growth, which can damage surfaces, especially marble and alabaster. Bat urine contains high concentrations of uric acid which can corrode metal. Bat urine also causes etching of polished surfaces like the lectern and staining of light coloured fabric and porous stone such as marble again. At Strensham, the medieval brasses in the floor are covered by pieces of carpet to protect them from bat urine. Fortunately, they don’t seem to be inhabiting the tower. In spite of the numerous problems caused by bats, many places don’t just tolerate them, but they like to encourage them. If you want to install a bat box in your church as part of a bat management programme, then this does not require permission from the Archdeacon or the diocese as it is what is called a list A item.

CATHY: What about squirrels?

DAVID: Scampering Squirrels are a familiar sight, but sadly, these American imports have had a disastrous impact on the native red squirrel and can cause real damage to buildings. The grey squirrel is recognised as being in the top worst 100 invasive species in the world. Here in Britain, it is actually against the law to rerelease a grey squirrel if it has been caught alive. That means any person who catches a grey squirrel alive is legally obliged to humanely dispatch it. Did you know that? Grey squirrels can cause damage when they enter roof spaces of houses and buildings. For instance, they can gnaw on woodwork and ceilings and strip insulation from electrical wires. They can get into a bell tower if there are nearby trees that they can use to climb up or they can even scamper up the stonework.

CATHY: What about birds?

DAVID: Here are some avian examples of things which cohabit towers with bell ringers. The Jackdaw is a small, intelligent black member of the crow family with a distinctive silvery sheen on the back of its head. The pale eyes are also noticeable. It will commonly nest in chimneys, buildings, rock crevices and tree holes. In towers, they can be a real pest if the windows or louvres are not fully protected with wire mesh. If they can find their way in, then they can bring in massive amounts of nesting material. Sometimes this can get so large it will get in the way of a swinging bell. At Bredenbury in Herefordshire, there was a silent practice session at the Hereford course a couple of years ago, so I had to go into the belfry to tie the clappers. On climbing up to the bells, I found a huge nest with eggs sitting between the bell wheel and the ledge at the bottom of the roof timbers, preventing the bell from being swung. I had to carefully move all this nesting material aside so we could ring. When there is ineffective netting across the tower openings and windows, the birds can and will get access inside the tower and can make a real mess. If they can’t get inside, they will often make their nests in the tower windows or in the slatted louvres filling them with sticks until they have made something suitably comfortable. When building their nest, if they can’t get the stick or twig they have just flown in with to stay where they want it to go, they will just drop it and go off and find another one, leaving the area around the nest strewn with sticks. It’s not unknown for jackdaw nesting material to even clog up the drives to tower clock faces and even stop the clock.

DAVID: All that nesting material can be a fire hazard and clearing after them is non-stop and messy business. The best deterrent is to ensure that the bird netting on the tower windows is in good working order. And before I go on to talk about another bird, I’m going to mention something else living in or rather on a bell tower. Believe it or not, there is an old yew tree growing on top of the tower at Culmstock in Devon. It’s been there since at least 1750, probably earlier. Though the roots must be damaging the stonework, but for some reason it’s allowed to stay there and is a much loved symbol of the village. R.D. Blackmore, the famous novelist best known for Lorna Doone, lived in Culmstock from 1835 to 1841. And in chapter one of his book Pearly Cross, he wrote. “For a time, much longer than any human memory, a sturdy yew tree had been standing on the topmost, stringing-course in a sheltering niche on the southern face”. In hot summers, apparently water is taken up to the tower to help the tree survive. On the subject of plants, ivy used to be common growing on churches and towers. The roots of plants like ivy do inflict damage on the stonework. And these days, the practice is to remove creepers and other plants before too much damage is done. Which is why the Culmstock yew tree is rather unusual. Sometimes plant life is visible inside towers. At Dent in Cumbria, and at St Mabyn in Cornwall to name just two. I’ve seen hearts tongue ferns growing on the ringing chamber walls. One of hearts tongues ferns other names is Christ’s hair, which is quite appropriate for a church.

CATHY: And you mentioned you were going to talk about another bird.

DAVID: Okay, let’s have a look at some more birds. The UK’s largest and commonest pigeon is the wood pigeon. It’s largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches. Although shy in the countryside where it is an agricultural pest with large flocks causing great damage to arable crops, it can be tame and approachable in towns and cities and can live on church buildings. I don’t know of any occasions where they cause particular problems in church towers. However, the feral pigeon does. It is a descendant of rock doves, which historically were domesticated for both eggs and for meat. Rock doves, domestic pigeons and racing pigeons and feral pigeons. They’re all the same species and will interbreed. Feral pigeons find the ledges of buildings to be suitable substitutes for sea cliffs and have been adapted to urban life and were abundant in towns and cities throughout much of the world, with steps being taken in many municipalities to lower their numbers or to completely eradicate them. Nests on bell towers, and especially in louvres, are quite common. Sadly, some misguided people like to encourage them and to feed them, such as the bird lady in the Mary Poppins film.

DAVID: Due to their abilities to create large amounts of excrement and to carry disease, there’s a serious risk of illness associated with them. Airborne particles of dried pigeon droppings are one of the transmission routes of a very nasty disease called psittacosis. It’s rarely fatal, but can cause high fevers, joint pains, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, severe headaches, nosebleeds and low level of white blood cells. It may even become a serious lung infection. Towards the end of the first week of an episode, stupor or even coma can result in severe cases. Fortunately, antibiotics, if administered in time, will usually relieve the symptoms after 2 to 3 days. But unfortunately for ringers and especially anyone doing belfry maintenance, feral pigeons do like nesting in towers and this kind of problem is not uncommon. A severe infestation will mean that any maintenance work on the bells ought not to be carried out until the belfry has been cleaned up with those involved wearing suitable PPE. That’s pigeon protection equipment. You really do need to think twice before working on anything which is covered in dry bird droppings as the consequences could be quite severe.

CATHY: What about Swifts?

DAVID: As their name suggests, swifts are among the fastest flying birds. They are able to cruise at about 70 miles an hour in level flight. In a single year the common swift can cover at least 200,000 kilometres and in a lifetime about 2 million kilometres as they migrate. Swifts need warm weather to provide a constant supply of flying insects, so they spend only about three months in the UK each year. They arrive from Central Africa in early May and make their nests of straw and saliva in church towers and on other tall buildings. Young swifts remain in the nests for 37 to 56 days, depending on weather conditions. Youngsters are independent as soon as they leave the nest and immediately set out on their migration. Swifts start their return journey to Central Africa in mid-July before the nights become too cool. They can’t roost overnight during the journey, so they travel quickly. One young swift that left its UK nest was observed in Madrid only four days later. Swift numbers are declining at about 3 to 4% per annum, and as such they are listed as endangered. They make a fantastic show in the summer screaming around the church tower. And unlike some species that nest in buildings, they make little or no mess. And many churches have now had swift boxes installed, such as at St Neots in Cambridgeshire. As of April 2020, the addition of swift boxes in a tower is a list B item. In other words, under the faculty rules, you just need the approval of an archdeacon to install one in the tower.

CATHY: And what about owls, David?

DAVID: As they might seem, owls can be just as much of a pest in bell tower as jackdaws and feral pigeons. Barn owls are a protected species, and it is an offence to recklessly or wantonly disturb their breeding sites. Tawny owls, however – they’re not quite so well protected. They still find their way into bell towers to make a nest and are very messy birds. But they are not protected by law in the same way as barn owls. Now, if you don’t want your belfry floor covered in owl pellets or other unpleasant mess, just make sure that the tower windows are securely netted.

CATHY: What is your favourite beast in the belfry David?

DAVID: Of all the beasts in or on the belfry, Peregrine Falcons are my favourites. This is probably because in the last ten years I’ve set up and managed a breeding site at Tewkesbury Abbey and have grown to like and respect these wonderful birds. The peregrine falcon is the world’s fastest animal, capable of reaching speeds of over 200 miles an hour in a hunting dive called a stoop. It generally preys on other birds, of which feral pigeons seem to be commonly caught, as are starlings. Since they mimic their natural cliff nesting sites, church towers are often places where urban peregrines like to breed, but they do need to be provided with a suitable nesting place. At Christchurch in Cheltenham, where there is an unringable eighteen hundredweight ring of one, there is one of the most successful breeding sites in the country with around 40 chicks fledged in the last decade by just one pair of adult birds. This is so important as the number of peregrines are still low following persecution and the use of pesticides in the 1950s. Pesticides like DDT, which got into the food chain and would result in eggshell thinning and poor breeding performance. These days there are only about 1,400 breeding pairs of peregrines in the country. On top of Christchurch tower in Cheltenham, there’s a simple wooden tray with sides on it to provide some protection against the wind and a roof gives them a little bit of shade from the sun and some protection from rain.

DAVID: Peregrines don’t actually have a nest, but they just make a scrape in gravel to lay the eggs. When they are old enough, the chicks have the entire roof at Cheltenham to roam around. At Tewksbury Abbey we have a relatively small tray poking out of the louvres on the east side of the tower. This will be replaced soon with something a bit bigger. We’ve got a video camera watching the birds from inside the louvres and a video recorder in the ringing room and plans are in place to livestream the video on YouTube so that anyone in the world can see them. This year, the peregrines laid three eggs, of which two fledged. If you’ve seen peregrines on your tower, then it’s worth getting in touch with the experts. I liaise with a Gloucestershire Raptor monitoring group. As well as being very helpful to me at Tewkesbury, they have recently helped set up breeding boxes at Cirencester and at Chipping Camden, where peregrines have been observed trying to breed. In my area peregrines are very much in evidence at Worcester Cathedral and Evesham and have been sighted at Bredon and at Pershore. Well, that concludes my short description of Beasts in the Belfry. But to finish, I’ve got a couple more anecdotes.

DAVID: One such story is that of a starling getting caught up in a bell rope while we were being in a quarter on the lovely light eight at Llantilio Crossenny where because the bells are so small, there is also quite a low ceiling. I’m not quite sure how it got into the ringing chamber, but it tried to land on the top of a sally and ended up being propelled upwards through the rope hole into the room above the ringing chamber. The other story I have is about a mouse at Colwall, which climbed up the chiming rope from the vestry below the ringing chamber, through the hole in the floor, scurried around the ringing chamber in front of the ringers and then left the way it came, back down through the hole. The quarter was scored in spite of this, and I also remember watching a vole at Bromsberrow squeezing under the church door in the porch, as we were waiting for it to be unlocked. And I did also once rescue a dog which had been inadvertently locked in the clockroom at Whitbourne in Herefordshire. It had been up there a couple of hours I think, after the clock winder had been up early in the morning and hadn’t realised that it had followed him up the tower.

CATHY: Thank you, David, for your fascinating insights into Beasts in the Belfry. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it. This podcast was put together by a team. Special thanks go to Anne Tansley Thomas, Emily Roderick, John Gwynne, Emily Watts, Leslie Belcher and the Society of the Cambridge Youths for the recording of their ringing.

[Bells ringing rounds]