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Tall Tales from the Tabloids

Common froghopper

In the past, an incomplete picture of the world around us led to some strange beliefs about nature. But just as these old wives’ tales were often inaccurate reflections of animals’ lives, so our modern media, social or otherwise, often completely misrepresents normal wildlife behaviour. Newspapers, in particular, are often guilty of turning something quite normal into cause for panic. Many of these stories appear at this time of year. Some are even regurgitated on an annual basis. The summer months aren’t dubbed the silly season when it comes to news stories for no reason. Scaremongering like this, though, can have a disastrous effect on our relationship with the natural world, just when we need to appreciate it more and halt biodiversity loss. It’s time to stop demonising wildlife and start debunking tall tales from the tabloids like those below.

Gulls, Gulls, Gulls

The most pervasive tabloid scaremongering surrounds the UK’s gull species. Every summer, tabloids and broadsheets alike inevitably report on killer ‘seagulls’ stealing chips, attacking people and making a nuisance of themselves. Many people see them as noisy, messy, aggressive and think they should be culled. While urban gulls do steal food and can be aggressive, newspaper reports make it sound as though the birds are out to attack in some sort of coordinated way. Coupled with this scaremongering are some huge misunderstandings about our seabirds. Quite different species, including non-related ones such as the fulmar, are often lumped together as ‘seagulls’, for example. Newspapers are usually just referring to two species of gull when they report on ‘seagulls’: herring and lesser black-backed gulls. So, with so much misinformation out there, what is the truth of the matter?

Herring gull tales from the tabloids
Most tabloid ‘seagull’ stories are about herring gulls

Both of these species now increasingly live in towns, some a considerable distance from the sea. This inevitably puts them into conflict with humans. They can be more aggressive at this time of year when having chicks, too. However, they have moved away from coastal breeding grounds solely because of us. Overfishing means they have had to look to other food sources and our towns and cities provide food aplenty. Our wasteful, messy habits make it a no-brainer for them when it comes to looking for easy pickings. And although more of both species now live in towns, herring gulls in particular are in real trouble. As a result of a 50% decline in the coastal population between 1970 and 2002, they are red listed as a UK bird of conservation concern.

Herring Gull Young
Herring gulls increasingly nest on roofs rather than cliffs

Crucially, harming them without a licence is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). This means that anyone wanting to deal with birds perceived to be nuisances by killing them is breaking the law. What we can do is change our behaviour to make conflict less likely. We need to stop dropping so much litter, especially food. We also need to remember that we have created this problem, not the birds who have been forced from their normal coastal homes. Ultimately, we need to learn to live alongside these much-misunderstood birds.

SHARK!!!

Last summer’s big scare story concerned a basking shark sighting off Folkestone, Kent. Both local and national newspapers reported that families ran terrified from the water when they saw the fin. Folkestone Sea Rescue issued a 24-hour swimming ban in the area as a precaution. Meanwhile, in Cornwall, a woman was bitten by a blue shark while on a snorkelling with sharks trip. Interestingly, the two incidents were reported very differently. Public safety fears were very much to the fore in the Kent report. However, the Cornish incident, despite involving an actual shark bite, was played down and the unusualness of the situation stressed. But how worried should people be by sharks in UK waters?

Basking Shark tales from the tabloids
Basking sharks are completely harmless filter feeders

There is absolutely no danger whatsoever from basking sharks. These ocean giants are filter feeders that only eat tiny plankton. They swim along with their mouths open, sieving out tiny organisms from the huge quantities of water they swallow. While they might have the classic Jaws shark fin, they have no teeth and can’t bite. Many of the papers reporting on the Kentish shark did at some point mention the animal’s harmlessness, but this detail was usually hidden well down the article. Blue sharks, meanwhile, do have teeth but biting humans is extremely rare. Refreshingly, everyone involved in the Cornwall event was keen to stress the freakishness of the event. The bitten woman herself was adamant that although she was scared, the event was abnormal, and we should not be persecuting these endangered animals.

Spitting Out the Truth

Our final tabloid tale is a bit more heartening. A Daily Mirror story about cuckoo spit from earlier this year originally suggested that people shouldn’t touch the frothy substance as it could be dangerous. Cuckoo spit is an extremely common phenomenon appearing as a frothy foam on plants every May and June. Froghopper nymphs produce the froth by essentially farting out the plant sap they consume. The froth serves as a perfect hiding place, not only protecting them from larger predators, but also helping them stay hydrated. The substance gets its name from the fact it usually appears at the same time as cuckoos arrive and call in the UK. After the piece was published, numerous people got in touch to point out that cuckoo spit is completely harmless to humans and the plant itself.

Cuckoo spit
Cuckoo spit is extremely common in May and June

Luckily, the paper took heed and updated the story online to warn not to touch it for the insects’ sakes, not ours. Now the piece explains how important froghoppers are for biodiversity and how touching the spit disrupts this tiny insect’s life cycle. Insects are declining at a worrying rate due to a combination of pressures, including insecticide use, climate change and habitat loss. Many insects are essential pollinators, as well as vital components of the food chain, and we need to protect them now more than ever. What is alarming about the article, however, is that it needed to be written at all. At one time, everyone would know about cuckoo spit, even if they didn’t know exactly what made it. That the piece suggests the substance is strange and unfamiliar shows just how disconnected from nature many of us have become.

Red and black froghopper tales from the tabloids
The nymphs of red and black froghoppers are one of the species making cuckoo spit

‘Evil’ Insects

Probably the most damaging stories are those implying that a species has some sort of ‘evil’ intent and is deliberately attacking us due to their malicious nature. While we are learning more about the emotional lives of animals all the time, they cannot be said to behave in a certain way because of a sense of morality. They are simply doing what keeps them alive and enables the passing on of their genes to the next generation. So when articles appear suggesting that a species is out to get us, they are well wide of the mark. Common wasps are often described as ‘crazed’ or ‘killer’ in these kinds of reports, especially at this time of year as they become more visible. This summer is no exception, with one article appearing recently that suggests that ‘sugar crazed’ swarms are about to ruin everyone’s picnics. While the article did end on a positive note, revealing that wasps are a vital component of our ecosystems, the negative attention-grabbing headline does nothing to improve attitudes to this important pollinator.

Common wasp
Common wasps are often demonised

The New Old Wives’ tales

We have probably been coming up with old wives’ tales to explain the world around us for millennia. In the past, because we hadn’t the scientific knowledge we have today, many of these tales were based on a misunderstood observation or connection. Nightjars, for example, were once called goatsuckers because people thought they suckled livestock. As insectivores, they were often seen flying around larger animals where insects are common. People thought they were after the milk not the insects.

Herring gull and young
We need to connect more with nature and help it, not demonise it

These days, despite our increased knowledge of biological processes, our disconnect from nature means that new misunderstandings continually spring up in the same way. And the global nature of our media means that demonising stories about the world around us have a much greater reach. The worry is that this could make people not only indifferent to nature, but also actually fear it. Indifference to and fear of the natural world makes it much harder to persuade people to protect it. Yet protect it we must as we face a huge biodiversity crisis. This makes it vital we speak out against inaccurate tabloid scare stories like those above when they appear.