Backlash against HPA's adder hysteria

An open letter to Justin McCracken, Chief Executive of the Health Protection Agency, in response to their press release "County walking? Think snakes..." (23/5/12):

Dear Mr McCracken,

I object most strongly to the Health Protection Agency’s
press release about adders today. It beggars belief that a government agency
can produce such an alarmist and sensationalist communication. Its tone is
inflammatory, its premise is flawed, and it is shameful news-mongering of the
worst kind. The risk of adder bite is small compared to countless other daily
risks, such as bee stings, allergens, getting out of the bath, and making a cup
of tea, to name but a few. There have only ever been 14 reported deaths from
adder bites in Britain, and none since 1975 – nearly 40 years ago.

You have inadvertently unleashed a tidal wave of persecution
against a species that is already one of Britain’s most threatened. Adders have
suffered centuries of persecution and habitat loss. They are declining across
many areas of Britain, and are recently extinct from several counties in
England. A report that I recently co-authored for the Amphibian and Reptile
Conservation Trust on behalf of Natural England showed that adders have
declined markedly in recent historical times.

A press release such as yours arguably does nothing to
protect public health, and is more likely to endanger it by provoking greater
hysteria and illegal acts of adder-killing. Adders are protected from killing
and injury, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Every
sensationalist campaign brings a renewed wave of persecution, regardless of the
illegality of killing adders. What’s more, the increased publicity you have
generated will probably bring some people into closer contact with adders than
they otherwise would have.

At no point in your press release do you point out
that it is illegal to kill adders, and at no point do you attempt to put your
case into context alongside other risks. How on earth did adders reach the top
of the priority list of life’s dangers? It seems that you opted for a
sensationalist subject because of its perceived newsworthiness. As a result,
you have left yourself wide open to a barrage of criticism from wildlife-lovers
and level-headed people; something that was surely not the intended

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Gleed-Owen, Director & Principal Ecologist, CGO Ecology Ltd