Before he could repair his ancient barn, I needed a special licence. Four years later...
By Nicholas Coleridge
Shortly after we applied for planning permission to repair an old barn, we received an enigmatic phone 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 at the time 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 in question is part-medieval, part-Victorian; no architectural gem, but a nice example of a Worcestershire agricultural building. You can clearly see it from our house. And each time I looked the roof had subsided further, and more tiles had slipped to the ground, so 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 be lost forever. I felt it would be shameful to allow this mellow old building, in parts 600 years old, 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 Grade II listed, but our house, Wolverton Hall, is Grade II*, so we have 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 had been required 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 British country life.
I have no issue with bats. Our part of Worcestershire is awash with them, and it is a pleasure to see them flitting along the treetops at dusk or swooping across the lawn. At least a hundred pipistrelle and horseshoe bats roost under the eaves of our house, which has been their favoured habitat for half a century, welcomed and undisturbed. No bat, however, has ever been spotted by us in the barn.
A requirement of obtaining a bat licence is to employ a licensed local ecologist – Natural England provides a list. Without one you are stymied, because you’ll never get the licence or planning go-ahead. Our first bat man had lots of letters 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. “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 you’ll need to employ my assistant, too, to see if a bat flies out of the end door.”
Bills rapidly piled up. Bat consultants charge at a rate approaching that of a distinguished Harley Street GP, but work more slowly. A document consisting of no fewer than 114 pages (“The Method Statement”) was compiled by a succession of bat men.
The “bat echolocation call analysis” arrived, and suggested that several different species of bat – common and soprano pipistrelles, natterer’s, long-eared browns 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 17 September 2009 but had left before dawn”.
None of this was particularly surprising but the ecologist was jubilant, and submitted a bill with a list of 80 legal bat requirements before any barn repairs could be countenanced. These included bat boxes and bat lofts (which have spoilt the architectural line of the roof, and were later complained about by county archaeologists) and 26 bat beams, all designed to lure our bats from their ancient roost in our attics and in to a new, custom-built, felt-lined bat sanctuary. Quite why we were grooming the poor bats to move home was never satisfactorily explained.
A second bat consultant (with even more letters after his name) 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 the next nine years, each visit costing hundreds of pounds. I couldn’t understand why I had received more than 100 emails on this seemingly simple project until I realised I was surcharged £25 for each one.
In one, he 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 missive reminded me 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; four months of builders, 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 from people thwarted by the bat police in their attempts to repair old buildings. A Gloucestershire landowner who has been through the process four times, converting granaries and outbuildings on his estate, boils with rage at the memory. “I am sorry to say I’ve come to regard it as a scam. The sheer pointlessness of what is achieved – or generally isn’t achieved – the inflated bills, the sanctimoniousness and bogusness of all those involved strikes me as almost criminal. I see little difference between these self-appointed 'bat experts’ and cowboy builders.”
Even the Prince of Wales is said to be alarmed by the bat industry, and the delays and costs surrounding his community projects on the Duchy of Cornwall Estate.
The British bat expert Ben Gaskell, a world authority on the bats of Madagascar, Indonesia and Honduras, says, “What’s going on really sticks in my craw. I’ve heard so many stories, 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 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 noble, well-meaning beginnings, intended to protect bat habitats in European countries where bats are scarce, mission creep has transformed the process into a full-blown industry. British bat experts wouldn’t be the first group to seize the main chance when offered it, and invent a new career for themselves. How long Owen Paterson, the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in whose bailiwick Natural England and the 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.
Meanwhile, my first-hand experience has altered my view of English heritage. In the old days, when driving through Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, I used to tut-tut at the sight of any tumbledown-barn, and declare, “Why on earth aren’t the owners repairing it?” Now I understand: the bat hurdles and costs are too onerous. No wonder the bat-hooverers of Evesham are thriving. How many more buildings must collapse before this bat cartel is sorted out? And who is speaking up for the bats?
A longer version of this article appears in this week’s 'Country Life’ magazine. Nicholas Coleridge is an author and president of Condé Nast International. His latest novel is 'The Adventuress’ (Orion, £14.99).