The adder, Britain’s only venomous snake, could become extinct across much of Britain within 12 years because of the uncontrolled release of millions of game birds, according to an expert.
The warning comes at the start of the pheasant shooting season, during which 47 million non-native pheasants and 10 million partridges will be released into the countryside by estates and shoots across Britain.
Nigel Hand, a trustee of Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG UK), who has been studying adders for 20 years, said: “The adder is on the brink of extinction in many sites across Britain … and it is the uncontrolled release of millions of pheasants by shooting estates which is pushing it over the brink.
“At this rate the adder will be extinct over much of its range by 2032, so it is essential we take action now to conserve it.”
Pheasants disperse widely into the countryside after being released, with hundreds of thousands killed on the roads each year. However, others end up on sensitive wildlife sites where they can have a significant impact on local species.
Pheasants kill reptiles including adders on sight, pecking at adults and swallowing young snakes whole. Although the adders are venomous, they stand little chance in any encounter as their bites cannot penetrate the birds’ feathers.
Teresa Dent, the chief executive of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, said “The GWCT has carried out detailed research that measured the effects of released pheasants and red-legged partridges on other wildlife and wildlife habitats.
“We found that the releasing of lowland game birds can be done in a way that minimises or avoids negative effects on habitats and other wildlife, and maximises the potential of management practices associated with releasing to deliver broader biodiversity benefit.”
The adder is a conservation priority species in the UK but climate change, habitat mismanagement, inbreeding and disturbance have all contributed to its decline. However, Hand believes the pheasant is having the greatest impact.
“Where I live, near the Malvern Hills, the Eastnor Castle estate releases thousands of birds into the countryside. Many disperse across the hills and on to protected conservation sites where I have seen them kill adders and other reptiles. The release must be properly regulated so game birds do not end up on nearby wildlife sites.”
Last year the most comprehensive survey of adders was undertaken by ARG UK, which found the species could be extinct by 2032. It also found that more than 90% of surveyed sites had populations of 10 or fewer adult adders, which were vulnerable to local extinction.
Conservationists are suing the UK government over the release of millions of game birds and their impact on rare and threatened species. The judicial review, brought by Wild Justice, will be heard in the high court in November.