Bat visitors learn the gentle touch: Oliver Gillie reports on an unusual evening class held at a Roman villa deep in the Gloucestershire countryside

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The Independent Online
AS DUSK approached, a chattering noise emerged from behind clapboard panels on the gable end of a building deep in the Gloucestershire countryside. A bat dropped out of one of the cracks beneath the eaves and David Bullock neatly caught it in his net.

'The bats peep out first to see if it is dark enough for them, and they make social calls to each other as they emerge,' said Mr Bullock, who is running a course for people who want to train for a certificate as a bat visitor.

Bats sometimes cause problems in churches and other places, but cannot be exterminated or even moved by an unqualified person because they are protected by law. Bat visitors can investigate such problems and when necessary move the bats to a safe place at a time when their breeding cycle will not be disturbed.

Mr Bullock picked the bat out of his net and held it in his hand, careful to avoid any pressure. Its face peered out between his fingers - its small ears suggested that it was a pipistrelle bat, the commonest British species, and this was confirmed by identification of a translucent lobe on its wing.

Mr Bullock was inspecting bats in buildings at Chedworth Roman villa, a National Trust property near Cirencester. Trainee bat visitors and members of the county's bat group were there to watch and learn. It takes more than a year to handle bats with confidence and understand them, to become a bat visitor.

It was a warm, damp night with a heavy scent of honeysuckle in the air. Midges flew about in clouds beneath the trees. 'The bats eat up to 2,000 midges in one night. They have to eat a lot at this time of year to feed the babies they are carrying. The females huddle together in the roost for warmth. The males have all gone off elsewhere. We don't know where,' Mr Bullock said.

By law, only licensed bat visitors are allowed to disturb and handle the creatures. 'People do not understand that bats are harmless and benefit us by eating midges and mosquitos.'.

(Photographs omitted)