Protected wild bats are to be captured in the UK and sent to Germany where they will be killed for research into rabies.

Government body English Nature is licensing scientists to catch 50 Daubenton's bats for a study into how a strain of rabies - virus EBLV-type 2 - is incubated and transmitted in bats. The animals are one of 17 species of bats in the UK, which are all protected by law because of low population numbers.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the study was important to understand how the rabies strain, which can be passed on to humans, was transmitted and to give advice to bat handlers and the public.

The risk of human infection is low, but since 1977 there have been four deaths from EBLV-type 2 rabies in Europe, including a bat conservation w orker in Scotland in November 2002.

The animals are being sent to Germany, as the UK does not have the specialised facilities for the study.

A Defra spokesman said: "Of particular concern is the public health aspect, where it could be found that a healthy Daubenton's bat may be infected with EBLV-type 2 and be capable of transmitting the disease without showing signs of rabies.

"Research is required to provide firm scientific evidence to support the current policy on bat rabies and in order to give clear unequivocal advice to bat handlers and the public on any risks to which they may become exposed."

Defra said the number of Daubenton's bats being taken for the study is very small compared with the overall UK population, which is thought to be around 150,000 animals.

The Bat Conservation Trust has not endorsed the research, and said it is "not happy" about the bats being killed. Chief executive Amy Coyte said: "The BCT does not approve of killing bats, and we all work passionately for their conservation, so nobody is happy about it."