The Whitlingham Bird Report 2020 is available now (click here)

For previous years (2012-2019) see the links on the Whitlingham Bird List page.

The great grass snake debacle

In a break from the usual posts, here is a rant about some shoddy reporting. In order to understand why this has annoyed me, you will need to understand the following introductory bit.

There are three native species of snake in the UK - Adder, Smooth Snake and Grass Snake (Natrix natrix). The Grass Snake has quite a few different subspecies across Europe. The subspecies of the snakes found in the UK is Natrix natrix helvetica. Research on Grass Snake subspecies has divided them up into three main groups, and one of these, Natrix natrix astreptophora, had recently been elevated to full species rank. The results of a new paper were released on Monday, suggesting that the other two distinct subspecies should also be split, creating the Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica) and the 'nominate' Grass Snake (Natrix natrix s.s. - the s.s. means in the strictest sense as opposed to in the broader sense it used to be used in). The effect of this work in a UK context is therefore quite clear - we don't have any extra species, 'our' Grass Snake simply changes name to Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica).

There are two more things that I should mention. The analyses the genome of grass snakes from across Europe, and a few of an Italian lineage were found in the sample from Great Britain. However, it is specifically noted that these unusual snakes, also found in an area in Germany, are called "a few isolated records "of "obvious cases of translocated individuals" Basically these are escapes or releases from the pet trade and most were excluded from the analysis. Secondly it is worth pointing out that just because this study recommends the promotion of these sub-species to full species rank doesn't mean it will take place. It probably will, but not always.

OK, so if you are following me so far then you will realise that this paper has some implications for European naturalists and conservationists, but in the UK it just means a name change. To be honest in a European context it's a non-story, for example can you remember the time Yellow-legged Gull became a full species being in all the papers?

Now to the crux of the matter. I first heard about this story when Natural England tweeted about it on Monday. The name of the story varied slightly, but a typical headline or byline is:
"New species of grass snake discovered in the UK" or "There are now four species of snake native to the UK"
Eager to read more I did the natural thing and followed the link to read more information. The link led to this article: Reading down the article, a potential issue arose. Whilst it said that the 'new' species was found in Great Britain (no surprise remember as Barred is the new name for our subspecies), the main research looked at two hybrid zones (i.e. where both species meet), and they were in Germany, nowhere near us.

Sometimes scientific papers are kept behind a paywall, so without paying a hefty fee you cannot read the research. Fortunately this was not one of them. Again I followed the link to the original paper on (read it here: and it confirmed my suspicions from the summary. Nowhere did the paper say that both species occurred in the UK. The media report was wrong.

To be fair to Natural England, when it was pointed out to them by several people, they checked it, agreed and took down the original tweet before retweeting it as general research. However by then it had been published by the BBC, Guardian, Express, Telegraph, Daily Mail and presumably pretty much everyone else. The story was re-tweeted by Springwatch, the Wildlife Trusts and various other organisations, not to mention many individuals.

So what happened here? It appears that the initial press release about the paper suggested that both species of Grass Snake are found in southern England. All it would have taken is for a journalist to have read the actual paper and they would have realised this was incorrect, but none of these news sources, trusted by millions, did that. Is it a time thing, a training thing, or do they just not have scientifically minded journalists? In this case it doesn't have any real implications, but the practice of publishing a press release without checking it certainly does in general. I don't have time to check the sources behind each story - that's exactly what I expect journalists to do.

Here we are, two days later, and the stories are all still up, and still being retweeted. Enough other people have figured out the mistake, why haven't the stories been changed?

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