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Tim Bonner: Pheasants, adders and the BBC

Those of you who were listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning would have heard a section on a reported decline in the adder population. Author Nicholas Milton (who was promoting his new book) stated that adders will be "extinct across most of Britain in the next 15-20 years" and that the reasons for this include "the release of 60 million pheasants that will kill adders". These are claims that have been made before, for instance in an article in The Guardian in 2020 written by Mr Milton. The problem for both him and the Today programme is that they are nonsense.

Firstly, the adder is not going to be extinct in Britain any time soon. It may well be struggling in some areas where small populations suffer from disturbance and habitat fragmentation, but sites with large populations are actually seeing an increase in numbers and the language of partial extinction in "most of Britain" is both illogical and (probably deliberately) misleading.

Secondly, the claim that pheasants are partly responsible for the decline in adder populations is completely unjustified on the basis of the evidence and the fact that it went unchallenged by the Today programme presenter is very probably a breach of the BBC's editorial guidelines. The reality is that there is no published scientific evidence suggesting that pheasants have a negative impact on adder or other reptile populations. More than that, a number of scientific papers have analysed pheasant droppings and stomach content to understand the pheasant's diet and none of them have found evidence of reptile remains.

Thirdly, Nicholas Milton referenced a 'citizen science' project looking at adder populations to support his claims. This study, published in 2019, did raise concerns about the sustainability of many small adder populations and it also identified three key concerns that should be addressed to better protect their populations. Those were public pressure, including dog walking, mountain biking, photographers, vehicles, and trampling vegetation while walking which were recorded on 48% of sites. Habitat fragmentation, which could lead to inbreeding and eventually local extinctions, was reported on 17% of sites. Habitat neglect, a lack of positive management and negative activities such as overgrazing and the use of heavy machinery was reported on 22% of sites. What neither this study or any other has concluded, however, is that the release of pheasants is a reason for adder population decline.

So why did Nicholas Milton make the claims he did, and why was he not challenged? Prejudice, ignorance and laziness all probably played their part, but that does not make it acceptable either for an author to misrepresent evidence, or for the BBC to allow that to go unchallenged.

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