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Do pheasants kill adders?

With gamebird releasing in the firing line for the UK’s decreasing adder population, Graham Lorne wonders if the claims stack up


’’I expect many of you will have read the Countryside Alliance (CA) news email circulated by the chief executive, Tim Bonner, entitled “Pheasants, adders and the BBC” last month. There have been several media reports proclaiming that adders are in severe decline in the UK, mainly prompted by Nicholas Milton, the author of a book on the snakes. In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the author suggested that “the release of 60 million pheasants that will kill adders” by UK game shoots was likely contributing to the decrease in the adder population. (Read ‘pheasant releases could wipe out adders.’)

Adders extinct?

While promoting his new publication, Mr Milton also claimed that the adder will be “extinct across much of Britain in the next 15 to 20 years”, a worrying statistic indeed. However, this claim has been strongly refuted by the CA, along with several other associated claims made by the accomplished author.

I have spent a fair bit of time in the countryside during my life, either through working in agriculture, participating in country pursuits or just taking the kids (and later my grandchildren) on a quiet nature ramble. Yet my encounters with adders have been limited to a couple of occasions, on the same farm, when I was a schoolboy in the 1950s.

Even the smallest ‘two-horse farm’ still had a stackyard in the days when the corn was harvested with a binder and the sheaves then stored in stacks until the arrival of the threshing gangs in the autumn. The grain was then separated from the straw amid a lot of hard graft and it was while doing this in such a nearby stackyard that I got my first close-up view of adders.

Sizeable snakes

It was a hot, sunny September day, and during the well-earned ‘cider break’ I took a wander across the unkempt two-acre stackyard to look at some World War I surplus horse-drawn General Service wagons. Almost obsolete, these wagons had helped gather in many a harvest and, as I pondered upon their service history, something caught my eye. Beside the wagons were some old ‘brawtches’ that had rotted down and dried out (the brawtches had been used to thatch and protect the previous year’s corn stacks). Lying on the brawtches and basking in the sun were three sizable snakes, none of which seemed aware of me.

After watching them for a few minutes, I slipped away and, before the threshing recommenced, I quietly returned with my father who confirmed they were adders. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to see the adders really, as corn stacks were frequently infested with mice or rats. Apparently, mice, rats and voles are a big part of the adders’ diet and, along with the largely quiet environment, the stackyard was a conducive habitat for these reclusive reptiles.

Since then, the countryside has seen many changes. The stackyards have long gone, while ‘right to roamers’ trample the remaining sanctuaries at the merest whim. Mile upon mile of ancient hedgerows have been grubbed out along with untold copses, spinneys and overgrown field corners, while advanced agricultural chemicals get regular application. An awful lot of wildlife has declined as a result, ranging from butterflies to grey partridges.

It must be logical, then, to accept that habitat loss has also impacted the adder far more than the pheasant poults that, allegedly, take such a toll on these ‘vanishing vipers’.However, would it be wrong to discount the possibility that the odd longtail might eat an adder?

Having consulted my 1984 copy of Brian P Martin’s Sporting Birds of the British Isles, I was amazed at the breadth of vegetable, insect and animal matter a pheasant might eat. Included among this extensive list were “field voles, small birds, slugs, worms, snails, lizards and small snakes”. The estimable Mr Martin also noted once finding a small crab during his post-mortem of a hen pheasant, although he didn’t comment on the possible cause of death.

I possess no academic qualifications but, as ‘citizen science’ is held in such high esteem by celebrity naturalists, perhaps I could make a couple of layman’s observations. When I viewed those adders in the stackyard in 1954, the countryside was stuffed full of wild grey partridges and pheasants. Wild game was far more plentiful then than it is now, despite the subsequent commercial release of birds for shooting.

I’d also hazard a guess those truly wild pheasants were far more streetwise than any farmed poult when it came to snaffling an easy feed, yet I never heard tell of a pheasant consuming an adder before present times. I’ve also been eviscerating game since I was child and have never noticed anything other than vegetable matter within the crop of a pheasant, although I accept there is always the exception to the rule.


Our modern countryside is full of resurgent species, some of which just might have an impact upon adders. I am now entertained by buzzards on a daily basis and even the sight of a red kite no longer causes quite the excitement it did only a decade ago. I often wonder what those buzzards are scheming when they hit a thermal and circle relentlessly over a given area.

A local farmer, who spends much of his life watching wildlife from his John Deere tractor, told me that these powerful raptors are not averse to dropping upon a small leveret crouching in its form. According to the RSPB website, the buzzard will also predate reptiles and amphibians.

As a result, I can’t help but wonder: would a buzzard consider dropping on to a sleeping adder while it was sunning itself on a hot summer’s day? It’s certainly a thought. Thanks to trail cams and footage provided by specialist wildlife cameramen, many old wives’ tales have been dispelled, with further enlightenment undoubtedly forthcoming. We still have so much to learn about our natural world, including the seemingly tenuous link between pheasant and adder.