Media Misconduct, Public Paranoia, and the Vanishing of the Adder

Image Credit: Thomas Brown, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

A couple of months ago, on a drive into town, my mum and I were listening to the radio. A particular segment, on adders in the UK, caught my attention. The guest, one Nicholas Milton, author of “The Secret Life of the Adder: The Vanishing Viper”, spoke passionately and informatively about the plight of the adder in Britain. He specifically noted how negative public perception of the UK’s only native venomous snake, egged on by media sensationalism and fearmongering, played into the difficulties in protecting and campaigning for the adder.

In a format typical of such shows, a second guest followed the first to offer a “balanced” perspective – balance of course being the watchword of sensationalist journalism (never mind accuracy). The lady in question, a member of the British public, told a chilling tale. While working in her garden with her partner, she was moving logs from a wood pile. After removing one such log, she discovered to her horror a snake curled up and now alarmingly exposed. In a truly terrifying scene, the snake proceeded to…slither past her and off into the undergrowth, to find a new home hopefully less likely to come with surprise evictions.

Having now heard this story, the host declared it “the perfect antidote to what we’ve just heard”.

I’m sorry, what?

Having heard Milton call out the media’s inaccurate and irresponsible reporting, and commended him on his educational and articulate defence of, and plea for, the adder, the host proceeded to almost immediately prove Milton’s point. I was flabbergasted, dismayed and, not least of all, incensed. “Outraged of (insert home town here)”, to quote my mother. 

This person had seen an adder, a rare enough experience that many (myself included) would be rightly jealous of. Absolutely nothing bad had happened in this encounter, except for the disturbing of the adder’s rest, and a mild shock to a member of the public. And the host was now declaring this an empowered, convincing counter to the first guest’s call to action in defence of one of Britain’s most iconic, and vulnerable, animals. It wasn’t even a counter-argument, and nothing of note even happened in the story! “Perfect antidote” my apoplectic arse.

But instead of sinking our fangs further into said host, let’s pause for a second and talk a bit about the adder, and its plight in Europe.

BlackAdder Goes Forth

The common European adder (Vipera berus) is one of just three snake species native to Britain, alongside the barred grass snake (Natrix Helvetica) and smooth snake (Coronella austriaca). Of the three, the adder is the only venomous snake. According to the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC), research indicated that there are 50-100 bites on humans per year in Great Britain, and roughly 100 reported bites on dogs. 

The majority of these bites occur when a snake is disturbed, and often when handled or moved, with most bites occurring to the hands and feet areas. Frankly, if you decide it’s a good idea to attempt to pick up a venomous snake, it should not come as some great shock to you if you are bitten.

Of these bites, as many as 70% show little to no signs of envenomation (poisoning by venom, as injected by the bite or sting of a venomous animal), and it is estimated that up to one third are “dry bites” where no venom is injected at all. Since 1876 there have been just 14 recorded human fatalities from adder bites in the UK, and the last was in 1975, 47 years ago! As a contrast, in the 30 years between 1987 and 2016, a comparatively whopping 58 people died from lightning strikes in the UK. Similarly, a two decade study in Denmark identified 219 adder bites leading to hospital visits, of which just 15% of patients were transferred to the ICU, while 61% presented no or negligible symptoms of envenomation.

Lightning, a far more deadly enemy of mankind, strikes the top of the Empire State Building. (Image Credit: Dan Nguyen, CC-BY-NC-2.0)

All this to say, the risk of dying from an adder bite is tiny (0.000959%, assuming 100 bites per year since 1876 against the 14 recorded deaths). On top of that, the chance of being bitten by an adder is minuscule (0.000149%, to be precise, if we assume the upper estimated bites mark of 100 and the UK’s rough population of 67 million). Since I might as well be thorough, given an estimated population of 10.2 million pet dogs in the UK, 100 bites per year works out at a bite risk of 0.000980% for the average dog.

But given the grievous bodily harm said host inflicted on the adder, let’s not only make it clear that the adder is no risk to humans. Let’s make it even clearer that the adder is at significant risk from humans.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is illegal to kill, sell or otherwise harm adders in the UK. Across the species’ wide range, the IUCN categorises its conservation status as being of “Least Concern” in its totality. But a deeper dive into the numbers and factors, in the UK at least, shows that all is not so rosy.

Make the Adder Count is a major ongoing citizen science project, which since 2005 has been surveying the UK’s adder population through public sightings. In 2019, a large scale assessment of the survey’s data so far was done. I consider myself a fairly glass-half-full type of guy, but the findings weren’t pretty. 260 different habitat sites were identified that had contributed data, and across these sites a significant average decline was found in sites with small populations, while sites of large populations showed a weak increase. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? They’re the type of stats that are often reported, and subsequently misinterpreted, by news outlets (though much of the time it’s through no fault of their own). Except that small sites (defined as those with ten or less adult snakes) made up a staggering 90% of all sites!

By extrapolating the current trends, the assessment predicted that if these trends continue, within 15-20 years adders will be restricted to a few specific sites within the UK. ARC also notes that adders appear to have already gone extinct in some counties, such as Nottinghamshire and Oxfordshire. This range reduction significantly increases extinction risk and pressures by limiting gene pools, isolating populations and further fragmenting habitats, and increasing vulnerability to catastrophic events.

A female adder (V. berus) pokes her head above the proverbial parapet to see what people are accusing her of today… (Image Credit: A.S. Begbie, Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0)

Various factors have also been highlighted as affecting these trends and adder habitats. Notable among these are public pressure and disturbance, urbanisation and habitat reduction, and the impact of gamebirds. According to Milton and Nigel Hand of the Amphibian and Reptile Groups UK (ARG), during gamebird shooting season as many as 47 million non-native pheasants, and 10 million partridges, may be released into the countryside by estates and shoots across the UK. Gamebirds disperse widely from release points, and will kill many reptiles, including adders, on sight.

All told, the pressures on adders show no signs of stopping or slowing, and neither does the adder’s decline and isolation. Despite current legislation, it is likely that without significant public pressure, little will be done before it is far too late. And for that public pressure, you need people to care, not scare.

Sensationalism Sells

As a big fan of sharks, I am used to the irresponsible sensationalism that plagues media reporting around some animals. I am also no stranger to imploring people to actually think about the situation, assess the facts, and look at it through objective eyes free from an exaggerated sense of fear. Too often it feels like a losing battle, but I don’t believe the general public is to blame.

Whenever a person is attacked by an animal, be it a shark, snake, or big cat, it is major, often international, news. This is not surprising or unusual – these events are rare, and depending on the animal in question often extremely rare. But they are not portrayed as rare. The fact that an attack may be a once-a-year occurrence may appear as a footnote in a story or article, but that doesn’t get clicks or engagement. Instead familiar questions are put at the forefront of the reporting: is this a crisis? How can we defend ourselves? Are animals encroaching too much on human territory?

Ignoring for a moment the staggeringly un-self-aware muppetry of that last question, it is worth briefly exploring how and why this sort of sensationalism happens, and what effects it has. Media reporting bleeds into public perception, and creates a positive feedback cycle of fearmongering and overreaction. People hear about potentially dangerous animals in their vicinity, and their minds turn to their own safety. This is by no means malicious, but it is, in most cases, misinformed. It can also, however, be profitable.

When it comes to why this happens, I can’t be as charitable and understanding. If it benefits a media outlet to exploit such concern, they will do so, in turn creating more concern, and on and on it goes, the aforementioned cycle. I am certainly not the first person to complain about this sort of reporting across a vast array of topics, and I highly doubt I shall be the last, so I won’t bore anyone with it further. Instead, a return to the latter question: has negative reporting influenced public perception of the adder?

This is, admittedly, extremely difficult to quantify.  The closest we can seemingly get to a survey of public “support” for the adder is a 2014 YouGov survey of British adults’ fears, in which 52% of adults described themselves as afraid of snakes, and 21% as very afraid. This is concerning, and, I wholeheartedly believe, avoidable. People are, after all, not blind. At least as far back as the early 1990s surveys of farmers and other recreational land users in Scotland have shown strong evidence for a perceived decline in adder abundance, and a general consensus that the adder is declining in more areas than it is increasing.

Survey results from YouGov’s poll of British fears. Clowns have somehow got away with one here, they’re by far the most terrifying thing on the list. (Image Credit: YouGov)

In Milton’s book, he lays out a ten point action plan for protecting the adder in the UK. It includes steps such as protecting in law all remaining adder habitation sites. But more relevant to this piece, perhaps, is another recommendation: the reporting, by the public or otherwise, of sensationalised and impactfully negative news stories to the press regulator.

Perhaps this may seem an extreme step, and I would stress it is not all on journalists. Scientists must work to better communicate their research and findings in clear, accessible ways for the general public. This goes not just for adders, but also for sharks and any other controversial, divisive or misunderstood areas of scientific research. People fear what they do not understand, so the saying goes, and it is the responsibility of scientists and journalists alike to work together to ensure people DO understand.

As a fictional namesake of mine once famously said (to someone who, as it happens, WAS significantly affected by a venomous bite): “with great power comes great responsibility ”.

Further reading/information:

Wildlife Trust adders factfile

NHS advice on snake bites

ARC Trust Dogs ‘n Adders leaflet

NHBS interview with Nicholas Milton

Ben Bluck is a PhD student at the University of Southampton, based in the International Centre for Ecohydraulics Research. He is broadly interested in almost everything to do with behavioural ecology and marine biology, especially sharks (hence multiple mentions in an article about snakes). You can find him being inactive on Twitter at @anendemicshrub – if he started tweeting about all the ecology-related things that annoyed him, he would likely never stop.

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