If bugs escape I’m a Celebrity ‘they could cause severe problems’, says Chris Packham

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Parts of the Welsh countryside could become permanently damaged if creatures used in I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! escape, conservationists have warned, amid growing calls to ban the use of live animals on the show.

North Wales police said it had advised the ITV show on “set management and biosecurity” following fears cockroaches, whip scorpions, mealworms and crayfish used in bushtucker trials might have escaped, after concerns were first raised by TV presenter and naturalist Iolo Williams.

If non-native species did escape from Gwrych Castle, where the show is being filmed, it could have a “range of invasiveness potential”, said Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife. Although relatively small, these creatures can cause permanent damage to native habitats. “Anyone who’s ever shared a mosquito net with a mosquito knows that size isn’t everything,” he added.

TV presenter Chris Packham said: “If any of these species were to naturalise, we could have severe problems. And we do have a history in this country of invasive species which have caused enormous ecological damage.”

ITV declined to say which species were used in filming but said all insects were “non-invasive”, reaffirming that animals used “are only ever released in a contained area and collected immediately after filming”. The show is normally filmed in the Australian jungle but due to Covid-19 restrictions is being held in north Wales.

Packham said he had written to the show’s hosts, Ant and Dec – Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly – every year encouraging them to stop using live animals, saying there are plenty of ways to make celebrities uncomfortable that do not involve animal abuse. “We don’t need very popular television programmes demonising, stereotyping and abusing animals which are key components to any ecosystem,” the Springwatch presenter said.

Around 85% of non-native species do not cause problems, but ones that do can disrupt delicate ecosystems and have devastating consequences. Invasive species are one of the most significant drivers of biodiversity decline globally and in the UK there are around 2,000 established examples.

The UK’s native white-clawed crayfish has dramatically declined due to the arrival of invasive American signal crayfish, which pass on diseases that the native species has no natural resistance to. Red squirrels were once widespread in the UK but are now near threatened in England, Wales and Northern Ireland following the introduction of grey squirrels in the 1870s. “We’ve got everything from flatworms, to slugs, to invasive crayfish, all out there causing harm to native wildlife,” said Shardlow.

If any non-native creatures were to escape from the castle, it is hard to predict which would become invasive. Tropical species would be unlikely to survive a British winter, but many cockroaches live indoors in the UK in basements and cellars. “These are species that wouldn’t survive in the wild, but they do survive in human habitation. So it does get slightly more complex than just whether or not they survive in the wild,” said Shardlow.

The filming is close to an ancient woodland managed by the Woodland Trust, which is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). A spokesperson from the trust said: “There is currently no evidence that species used in filming have not been contained. Nor do we know what those species are, so we are unable to give any indication of what the impacts might be.

“The matter of whether there has been any breach of the law is one for the police, and we do not wish to pre-empt the results of their investigation. Obviously we hope that in this case best practice has been followed.”

“I find this programme really distressing because it undoes so much of our good work,” Packham said. “The programme is indirectly saying that these animals don’t matter. And that’s ignorance of the highest order.”

He also criticised the show for its continued disregard for the welfare and reputation of animals, an issue which has repeatedly been raised by the RSPCA. He said: “It’s like some ghastly circus that you would have seen in the 60s or 70s … PG Tips do not use live chimpanzees to advertise their tea, because they’ve learned better. What’s the matter with I’m A Celebrity? What is it about them where they can’t just wake up to the fact that the world’s moved on?” he said.

A police spokesperson said: “North Wales Police and Natural Resources Wales have received information regarding the potential release of non-native species into ‘non studio’ areas, and we have given suitable advice to the production team regarding their set management and biosecurity.” The spokesperson said the police would not be commenting further.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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