Wildlife scare stories

British newspapers love nothing better than a melodramatic, poorly fact-checked piece about so-called 'dangerous' wildlife. Here are 7 of the worst offenders from summer 2015.

Urban gulls have been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently.
Urban gulls have been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently.

1 WORLD’S MOST DEADLY SPIDER ON THE LOOSE IN THE UK Daily Express

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REALITY CHECK An egg sac said to belong to a Brazilian wandering spider was spotted on some bananas in Leicestershire. Yet this arachnid is unlikely to bite unless provoked – and the egg sac was misidentified anyway.

BBC WILDLIFE RATING 0/10 This story was nonsense presented as fact.

2 SCHOOLBOY FINDS MONSTROUS DEATH MOTH THE SIZE OF A BAT IN HIS GARDEN Daily Mirror

REALITY CHECK Named for the skull-like pattern on its thorax, which featured in the film Silence if the Lambs, the death’s-head hawkmoth is as harmless as it is rare. And is hardly bat-sized, either. This beautiful migrant moth usually turns up in the British Isles in autumn.

BBC WILDLIFE RATING 2/10 This hawkmoth does have cultural associations with death, but almost everything else about this story was misleading hype.

3 POISONOUS SNAKES WITH THE POWER TO KILL PETS SWEEP ACROSS BRITAIN Daily Express

REALITY CHECK Adders are native to Britain and far smaller than most people realise, and they are generally terrified of humans and our pet dogs and cats. Killing is natural behaviour for any predator, so of course adders can kill! But they seldom bite in anger and pose little threat to humans. Technically, adders are also best described as venomous, not poisonous.

BBC WILDLIFE RATING 0/10 A woeful piece of shoddy, inaccurate journalism.

4 ABSOLUTE MONSTER SHARK CAUGHT OFF CORNWALL Daily Express

REALITY CHECK True, the porbeagle is related to the great white shark, but both species would rather be left alone and neither is monstrous. Porbeagles are classed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. As with other sharks, sport fishing and death as bycatch are major threats.

BBC WILDLIFE RATING 3/10 Most of the essential facts in this story were correct. But like many articles about sharks in British waters, it is still infantile scare-mongering of the worst kind.

5 KILLER HORNETS MAKING A BEELINE FOR THE UK Daily Mail

REALITY CHECK Asian hornets do possess a potent sting and – if they colonised Britain – might threaten native bees. But neonicotinoid pesticides probably pose far more of a danger. The risk to humans is overblown too – Britain’s native hornets are actually larger.

BBC WILDLIFE RATING 2/10 More hype and assumption than fact. For good measure, the picture accompanying the original article was of the wrong species of hornet.

6 PLANT THAT KILLS HORSES HAS INFESTED THE COUNTRYSIDE Daily Mail

REALITY CHECK Common ragwort is native and supports a suite of valuable pollinators, so doesn’t ‘infest’ Britain.
The wildflower can pose a risk to horses and cattle, but calls for the ‘dreaded plant’ to be eliminated are unjustified.

BBC WILDLIFE RATING 3/10 It is true that ragwort can kill horses and cattle, and the law requires that should be controlled. But it is quite a leap to argue that a native wildflower that has been in Britain for centuries needs widespread eradication.

7 GIANT JELLYFISH WARNING FOR SOUTH COAST DAYTRIPPERS Daily Telegraph

REALITY CHECK 2015 has indeed been another great summer for records of barrel jellyfish in UK waters. But though they are large, they’re neither ‘giant’ nor dangerous.

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BBC WILDLIFE RATING 2/10 Anecdotal evidence does suggest that numbers of some jellyfish species are on the rise in British waters. But the risk to humans is wildly exaggerated.