Shortly after we applied for planning permission to repair an old barn, we received an enigmatic telephone call from a withheld number. The voice had a strong Evesham accent. ‘Is that Mr Coleridge? I was wondering if you’d like us to come over and sweep your barn for bats? Seeing as how you’ve gone for planning.’ ‘Sorry, who is this please?’ ‘Never mind who we are,’ came the sinister reply. ‘We’ve got all the kit, industrial-strength vacuum cleaners. We can suck every trace of bat from your property, from every crevice. Four hundred quid. Cash.’
Foolishly, I said no. The proposal felt dodgy, and I had no concept of how the bat industry was about to invade my life and impose itself, like some malign parasite, for years to come. The barn is part-medieval, part-Victorian; it’s no architectural gem, but a nice example of a Worcestershire agricultural building with clapperboard cladding and decorative brickwork. The roof was subsiding and there was a gaping hole open to the sky. It was obvious that, if we didn’t do something soon, the walls would cave in and the barn would be lost forever. I felt it would be shameful to allow this mellow building, 600 years old in parts, to collapse during our ownership.
I applied for planning permission and, after the usual heritage inspections, all was looking good; the barn itself is only listed Grade II, but our house, Wolverton Hall, is Grade II*, so we’ve become accustomed to expert scrutiny. All that now stood between us and saving the barn was a bat licence- a European Protected Species Mitigation Licence-which was required, almost as an afterthought, by the council’s planning department. So began a four-year saga, costing almost £10,000 and counting, which was to offer us a fascinating, but disturbing insight into the out-of-control world of the bat police, which many view as a scandal of country life.
I have no issue with bats. Our part of Worcestershire is awash with them and it’s a pleasure to see them flitting along the treetops at dusk or swooping across the lawn. Sometimes, they fly into a bedroom through an open window and we gently usher them back outside by flapping bath towels. At least 100 pipistrelle and horseshoe bats roost, welcomed and undisturbed, under the eaves of our house, which has been their favoured habitat for half a century. However, no bat has ever been spotted by us in the barn, not once.
A requirement of obtaining a bat licence is to employ a licensed local ecologist- Natural England has a list you can consult. Without a bat man, you’re stymied, because you’ll never get the licence or planning go-ahead. Our first man had the letters MIEEM after his name (they relish these, as spurious professional camouflage). He arrived to inspect the barn and reported he’d found no initial evidence of bats at all. ‘That’s a relief,’ I said naïvely. ‘Job done.’ ‘Oh no, no,’ he chuckled caustically. ‘It means I’ll have to come back several more times, in different seasons, to assess bat activity. And install recording devices that are triggered by bat squeaks. It’s possible bats use the barn for ambulatory flight. And next time, you’ll need to employ my assistant, too, to see if a bat flies out of the end door.’ ‘Couldn’t one of our children stand there?’ I suggested. More superior laughter. ‘Oh no, no, we need an accredited expert. Some bats are so small that they cannot be seen by an untrained, naked eye.’
Recommended videos for you
Bills rapidly piled up. Bat consultants charge at a rate approaching that of a distinguished Harley Street GP, but work more slowly. A document of 114 closely typed pages (the ‘Method Statement’) was compiled by a succession of bat men, much of it templated and full of padding and repetition, and the suspicion entered one’s mind that this verbose dossier might have been compiled as much to justify the enormous bill as to clarify the natural history.
The results of the ‘bat echolocation call analysis’ arrived, and suggested that several different species-common and soprano pipistrelles, natterer’s, brown long-eareds and lesser horseshoes-had been detected foraging at night close to our barn and ‘a single lesser horseshoe bat was recorded flying inside the barn on 17th September 2009 but had left the barn before dawn’.
None of this was particularly surprising because, as previously mentioned, our attics are full of them and bats regularly fly long distances at night searching for food. Bat man was jubilant and submitted his latest bill with a list of 80 legal requirements before any barn repairs could be countenanced. These included bat boxes and bat lofts (that have spoilt the architectural line of the roof and were later complained about by county archaeologists), 26 bat beams, daft restrictions of every sort, all designed to lure our bats from their ancient roost in our attics and into a new custom-built, felt-lined bat sanctuary. Quite why we were grooming the poor bats to move home was never satisfactorily explained. It was recommended we transport droppings from the attic to help lure the mammals into their new-build.
A fresh consultant, with MSc, MIEEM and MACMA (don’t ask) after his name, now joined the party and announced that, as part of his ongoing bat-monitoring programme of Wolverton Hall, he was required by law to visit us regularly for nine years into the future. Each visit costs hundreds of pounds, including charges for his driving time and mileage. I couldn’t understand why I’d received more than 100 emails on this seemingly simple project until I realized that I was surcharged £25 for each one.
One of the new man’s better bombshells was to question why his colleague had stipulated a bat loft (‘I wouldn’t have asked for that myself’), but, by then, it was too late. Another email cautioned me that I was required by law to keep the Method Statement dossier on display at all times in a designated place, where it can be regularly consulted. I chose the piano top, where it has sat, all 114 pages of it, unopened ever since.
Another peremptory missive reminded me that I faced a £5,000 fine or a prison sentence for disturbing a bat, or if I failed to comply with any detail of bat law. In total, it took four years to get the barn repaired; only four months of builders, but 44 months of petty bat bureaucracy. As the saga progressed, delay upon delay, report upon report, bill upon bill, I realised I was not alone in my frustration.
From all over Britain, I kept hearing similar howls of protest. One Gloucestershire landowner, who has been through the process four times during the conversion of granaries and outbuildings on his estate, boils with rage at the memory. ‘I’m sorry to say I’ve come to regard it as a complete scam,’ he says. ‘The sheer pointlessness of what is achieved- or generally isn’t achieved-the inflated bills, the sanctimoniousness and bogusness of some of those involved strike me as almost criminal.’
An Oxfordshire friend, equally exasperated, had to endure a bat man sitting shirtless on a deckchair on the lawn, applying factor 15 to his face and ‘observing any bat activity’ as their builders got on with the real work. He was the highest paid of all involved. Even The Prince of Wales is reported to have become increasingly alarmed by the delays and costs surrounding his community projects on Duchy-owned land.
British expert Ben Gaskell, who stands outside the UK bat mafia as a world authority on the bats of Madagascar, Indonesia and Honduras, says: ‘What’s going on sticks in my craw. It’s become a little microcosm of regulation. These people aren’t properly regulated. It’s got out of hand. You don’t have to pass a test to set up as a bat expert, you don’t need a specific degree. They charge what they like. It’s in all their interests to spin things out. Why not?’
It’s easy to see what’s gone wrong. From well-meaning beginnings, intended to protect habitats in European countries where bats are scarce, mission creep has transformed the process into a full-blown industry. How long Owen Paterson, the decisive new Secretary of State for Defra, in whose bailiwick bat bureaucracy sits, will allow this to continue is a matter of conjecture; he will certainly face stiff opposition from vested interests if he tries to address it. My experience has profoundly altered my view of heritage. In the old days, when driving through the back lanes of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, I used to tut-tut at the sight of a tumbledown barn, and declare: ‘Why on earth aren’t the owners repairing it?’ Now I understand: the hurdles and costs are simply too onerous.
No wonder the bat-hooverers of Evesham are thriving. How many more threatened buildings must collapse before this bat cartel is sorted out? And who is speaking up for the bats?
Nicholas Coleridge is an author and president of Condé Nast International. His latest novel is ‘The Adventuress’ (Orion, £14.99)
Counting the cost
All 17 bat species in the UK are protected by law. It is a criminal offence to disturb a roost, even if there are no bats there at the time, to handle a bat or to try to move a colony on. Penalties range from £5,000 to a prison sentence A bat survey is required for any building work that could impact on bats or their foraging areas before planning permission is granted. If there are bats, you will need a licence to deal with them from Natural England and there may be other conditions. This can apply to woodland as well.
An initial ‘scoping’ survey costs about £400. The surveyor may then suggest further dawn/dusk ‘emergence’ surveys, which can involve two people and cost about £900. There will be analysis costs if suspected bat droppings are found. The presence of cobwebs is cause for celebration-this means you probably don’t have bats.
Before applying for a European Protected Species Licence (free), Natural England offers a pre-submission screening service to increase the likelihood that your application will be successful. This costs £1,350-£3,250 (www.naturalengland.org. uk). Similar prices apply to surveys for great crested newts and dormice For a guide to good practice, contact the Bat Conservation Trust (0845 130 0228; www.bats.org.uk).
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter