Government scientists have been given permission to capture wild bats in Britain and ship them to Germany where they will be injected with rabies and killed.
Conservationists have criticised the project, claiming it is both cruel and unnecessary, as well as against the spirit of the law protecting wild bats in Britain.
English Nature has granted a licence for scientists to experiment on the bats, which are listed as a "European protected species of animals" under the Habitats Directive of 1994.
A spokesman for the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is in charge of the research, said the study is important for understanding how bats might transmit rabies to humans. Defra's Veterinary Laboratories Agency will collect about 50 Daubenton's bats as part of research into a strain of rabies called European bat lyssavirus (EBLV) type 2.
Defra said it does not have space in its UK laboratories to conduct the research, so it is to ship the bats to Germany. "They will be humanely euthanised at the end of the study because an analysis of tissue samples and organs needs to be carried out," a Defra spokesman said.
Daubenton's bat, known as the water bat because it lives near rivers, lakes and canals, is the only one of 17 species of British bat that is known to carry EBLV type 2.
Blood samples taken from Daubenton's bats led to estimates that about 3 per cent of the national population of 150,000 have been exposed to the virus at some time. Yet little is known about how the virus is transmitted, although the risks to the public are considered to be almost non-existent.
In 2002, a bat conservationist in Scotland died of rabies caused by EBLV type 2, but this was assumed to have occurred after handling the animals without gloves, something the public are warned not to do. Defra said a particular concern is whether Daubenton's bats can transmit the virus while showing few if any symptoms.
"Research is therefore required to provide firm scientific evidence to support the current policy on bat rabies and in order to give clear, unequivocal advice to bat handlers and the general public," the Defra spokesman said.
However, Gill Langley, scientific director of the Dr Hadwen Trust, which opposes animal research, said that she was unconvinced.
"The public is at minimal risk, according to the Health Protection Agency, and the experiments will cause considerable suffering," Dr Langley said. "Only three infected bats have ever been found in the UK. Only two people have been infected worldwide - both of whom were bat handlers," she said.
The Bat Conservation Trust, an organisation set up to protect British bats, was consulted, but the trust said it had neither opposed nor endorsed the study.
"Nobody at the trust is happy that 50 bats are going to be experimented on," said Amy Coyte, chief executive of the trust.
"In any case in which the trust thought the conservation status might be affected, or in which there was a satisfactory alternative, the trust would strongly oppose the legality of the research," she added.
Defra said the study will take three months and cost more than £300,000.
Facts on a fatal disease
* An infectious viral disease that affects the nervous system. After the onset of full symptoms in an unvaccinated person, the virus is invariably fatal. More than 30,000 people worldwide die each year of the virus. It is usually found in saliva and normally infection is through being bitten. It ensures transmission to the next host by causing exceptional aggression.Reuse content