University of Worcester Student to Undertake Malvern Hills Reptile Research

A team of researchers from the University of Worcester’s Institute of Science and Environment will undertake potentially vital research looking at the future of the county’s reptiles this summer.

The numbers of adders, grass snakes and slow worms on the Malvern Hills are already in decline due to habitat loss, and recent anecdotal evidence suggests that pheasants released on nearby shooting estates are contributing to the problem.

Rory Dimond, who is studying a Bachelor of Science in Conservation Ecology, will be working under the supervision of Dr Duncan Westbury and Dr Mike Wheeler to determine whether there is a direct link between the pheasants and the decreasing number of reptiles.

Dr Westbury explains: “The Malvern Hills provide excellent habitat for our native reptiles, but conditions are also good for the pheasants that manage to survive the shooting season.

“Around 35 million pheasants are released each year in the UK, and it is estimated that about 16% of these survive the shooting season, and that figure suggests that pheasants could be having an impact on our reptiles.”

The project will see the University team work in conjunction with Nigel Hand, a reptile ecologist at Central Ecology, as they analyse pheasant scat (faeces) for reptile DNA.

Dr Westbury continues: “If a link between pheasants and our native reptiles can be demonstrated, a more detailed study is planned. This will then investigate whether pheasants are actually having a negative impact on reptile populations.”

Dr Wheeler, Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry and Genetics, adds: “The University has the facilities to undertake molecular studies of samples from the environment.

“Using similar techniques to those used in DNA fingerprinting, we can identify potential prey species of pheasants which will make an important contribution to understanding their ecology.”

The pilot project has enabled third year student Rory to take part in cutting edge research as part of the Earn as you learn scheme.

Rory says: “As someone with a keen interest in reptile conservation, it’s exciting to be able to contribute to a real-life investigation into the impacts on their populations.

“The molecular ecology techniques I have been learning are fascinating and a great addition to what I have already gained from my course at the University of Worcester, particularly since the use of genetic analyses is growing in the field of ecological conservation.”