Britain's only venomous snake, the adder (Vipera berus), has often been in the news over the last year or so. Fears over its apparent decline have raised media attention across the UK, but rarely does a lowly reptile precipitate such fuss as a parliamentary question and a note in Hansard!
Yes indeed, the adder has entered politics. Thanks to a press release circulated after the excellent adder conference organised by Kent Reptile and Amphibian Group in December 2011, heads have been turning in very high places.
Labour MP Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) submitted the following written question in January 2012: "To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Caroline Spelman MP] what assessment she has made of trends in the number of adders in the UK."
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defra: "Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales are supporting the work of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and local amphibian and reptile groups to assess adder populations. Early results of a national reptile survey show that adders were recorded in only 7% of the sample plots studied. If the final report confirms a worrying decline in this species the three agencies will build on existing work with partner organisations and volunteers to enhance strategies to address it."
It is fantastic to see that the Kent conference had such a dramatic effect, and that our voices have been heard. It is also fascinating to see how readily Mr Benyon and his researchers jumped into partnership with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), local amphibian and reptile groups (ARGUK) and projects like NARRS. Let's hope that these words will bring actions too.
Actually, it seems that this has already begun to happen. As a corollary of Mr Benyon's public response, influence was exerted down the chain to Natural England, which quickly allocated funds to an urgent project to assess adder status across England.
CGO Ecology Ltd is working in partnership with Natural Acuity Ltd to deliver this 'Adder Status Project' (ASP) for ARC, who will deliver their report to Natural England by the end of March 2012. The project is reviewing the current status of adders across England, and will recommend policy for future conservation and monitoring.
Professional ecologists and amateur nature-watchers alike have been joining in chorus to call for more research and assistance for this beleaguered species. A genetic project is under way (coordinated by the Zoological Society of London), a monitoring project called 'Make The Adder Count' (www.maketheaddercount.org) is being re-launched, and several local projects have all raised media attention.
Adders appear to be declining rapidly in some parts of the country, and have already become extinct in several counties. This is by no means the case everywhere - some upland areas still have very healthy adder populations - but with declines in many areas, their overall status is giving cause for concern.
If you're still finding it hard to believe that adders have featured in a parliamentary question, you can see the relevant exchange here: www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2012-01-11a.83331.h.