DUSK in south Warwickshire. The setting sun is blood red, the sky tinged with pink. Midges buzz round the thistles lining the river bank. Moths hover near the fairy lights strung between the trees outside the Red Lion pub at Hunningham.
We hear the babble of conversations and the occasional shrieks of children. But we have our backs to them. We are concentrating. Listening. Watching. Waiting.
Any time now the bats will come swooping through the gloom. Chris Brooke-Harris will pick up their approach on his bat detector. His assistant, Alison, has a powerful torch at the ready.
Mr Brooke-Harris is director of the Warwickshire Bat Group, which is affiliated to the Warwickshire Nature Conservation Trust. There are 89 other such groups throughout Britain, co-ordinated by the Bat Conservation Trust from its headquarters in Covent Garden, London. The trust is dedicated not only to preserving bats but also to improving their image, for the creatures need all the friends they can muster.
'Fifty years of Dracula movies have not done them much good,' Mr Brooke-Harris says. 'People associate them with darkness and evil, when in fact, they are very intelligent, cuddly and sociable.'
Contrary to popular myth, they do not suck blood (not in this country, anyway), do not become tangled in human hair and are not blind. Far from it. In pitch darkness, one bat can catch and consume 3,500 insects a night - a very effective form of pest control.
And although bats have a reputation for hanging around belfries, they are just as likely to be found in a Barratt; the pipistrelle bat feels quite at home in the rafters of a modern house. Baby bats have a tendency to fall through tiny holes around pipes, and Mr Brooke-Harris has been called out by a hysterical householder who was luxuriating in the bath when one dropped in. In such circumstances, he has to return the offspring to its mother as soon as possible.
But he is unable to move bats out of a building without first consulting the conservation group English Nature. Householders who insist on trying to destroy a roost in the rafters could face a fine of up to pounds 2,000, as bats are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
'We've been losing them at a shocking rate,' Mr Brooke-Harris says. 'More than 99 per cent of the greater horseshoe variety has gone.' Unlike rodents, bats do not reproduce at a great rate; a female produces one offspring a year.
Changing land use and pesticides have also taken their toll, as have modern timber treatments. Some 100,000 buildings are sprayed each year and the vapours can be deadly. The Bat Conservation Trust recommends water-based sprays as an alternative.
This advice is taken on board by four members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who have accompanied us to the river bank in Hunningham to learn about bats. Tim Ratcliffe, an architect from nearby Leamington Spa, earns some brownie points by telling us that he has held up work on the restoration of an old church for three months, as bats cannot be disturbed while hibernating.
As he speaks, the bat detector crackles into life. There is the faintest flutter in the distance. Suddenly, the distinctive wings are outlined in Alison's torch beam. It is a Daubenton water bat, with claws big enough to pick up a small fish. Several more appear as darkness falls.
They will return to their roosts at dawn, sleep until noon and spend the afternoon chattering happily. 'They really are very sociable creatures,' says Mr Brooke- Harris, whose wife, Marie, sometimes watches television with a bat perched on her shoulder.
This image of domesticated cuddliness is not easy to convey to a sceptical public, but the trust finds that close contact can win over even the most timid.
Mr Brooke-Harris often takes along a bat to illustrate his talks. 'Children love to stroke them. They discover that bats really are cuddly.' The bats seem to bask in human attention. 'Last week, we wentto pick up an extremely rare species of bat - a barbastelle - that was found in Marks & Spencer in Stratford. Only two have been spotted in the last three years. It was injured and frantic at first, but after we stroked it for a while it calmed down and wouldn't be left.'
As for the objections to having bats in the belfry voiced by a Norfolk vicar's wife in yesterday's Independent, Mr Brooke-Harris says: 'Who has the right to evict them? After all, God made all creatures. Surely we owe them something?'
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