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Nicholas Butler joins a party of night visitors in search of bats at Charlecote Park
Ere the bat hath flown
Nicholas Butler joins a party of night visitors in search of bats at Charlecote Park.
Dusk at Charlecote Park. The tourists are gone and all that remains of the sunset is a streak of orange. The finials and chimney pots of the sixteenth century pile silhouette majestically against the darkening sky; here and there a light in the faade discloses the shape of a Tudor window.
The business of the day is over, but a party of night visitors has business of its own. Twenty people arrive by car, shelter briefly from a passing drizzle under the gateway then set off to tour the grounds that were capably laid out two-and-a-half centuries ago. They have come to look for bats.
Two decades ago it was discovered that the bat population of this country was declining rapidly. So the Bat Conservation Trust was founded, to reverse the situation. Then the government body Natural England decreed that whenever a property such as an old house or traditional barn, was altered the local county council should look for bat roosts and if found they should be retained.
Bats are a quietly important element in the eco-system. The average bat eats three thousand insects a night. If the bats disappeared we should be horribly plagued by midges.
Happily, the numbers of our eighteen bat species are no longer declining. A spokeswoman for the Bat Conservation Trust, Heath McFarlane tells me, Most of our species are stabilising or starting to increase. However, this is in the context of a large decline in the past. We need extensive population increases over a long period to indicate a full recovery.
So the Warwickshire Bat Group, with torches and bat detectors, explores the darkness of Charlecote Park, accompanied by three members of the household, Jasper the black-and-white cat, Dodo the tortoiseshell cat and Tim Harris the Assistant Visitor Services Manager.
The party passes through an arboretum and arrives at the ornamental lake, so shallow that the comparatively rainless summer has almost dried it out. The bat detectors, translating bat squeaks into language audible to humans, start chittering. The common pipistrelle and the soprano pipistrelle are present though invisible.
The bat seekers traverse the noble parkland dotted with immemorial trees. A herd of fallow deer, phantom white, gallops swiftly and silently in front of us. Has the ghost of a youthful, poaching William Shakespeare ever been seen here?
We reach a classically beautiful bridge over the River Dene where bats are both audible and visible. There is a sudden, inexplicable low crump-crump of heavy gunfire. Where is it coming from? What can it be? Tim Harris tells us that Ragley Hall, on the other side of Stratford-upon-Avon, thirteen miles away, is hosting a Battle Proms Concert.
Finally, the party halts on the banks of the Avon, a stones throw from where the Dene splashes loudly into it. Torches pick out two Daubentons bats as they skim the water in never-ending circles. After two hours of batting the party disperses, well satisfied. A report of its findings will be sent to County Hall.
To contact the Campaign to Protect Rural England, phone 01926 494597 or visit www.cprewarwickshire.org.uk