Misinformation in the media – wildlife ‘experts’ should know better

The usual misinformation about mistletoe decline is hitting the news again this weekend.  It’s a common problem at this time of year – the mistletoe crop is threatened as the cropping habitats (traditional orchards) decline but mistletoe itself, as a species, is not threatened, and indeed seems to be increasing.  So there is legit concern for the crop, and this can be used, correctly, to make a case for orchard conservation (a good thing).

But that subtlety, that there isn’t actually a threat to the species – only to the crop, is lost to the media, and isn’t helped by so-called ‘experts’ in wildlife groups spinning the story as a threat to mistletoe.  So, yesterday we had the Sussex Wildlife Trust telling anyone who’d listen that mistletoe kisses were under threat – and stating the plant itself was threatened.  Whilst, at the same time, on their Facebook page, posting a link to a Sussex Biological Records Centre article about how mistletoe was abundant in Sussex and  increasing in England.  The contradiction was obvious.

Today the BBC and the PA have picked up on the Sussex WT scare story, embellished it with some quotes from previous years and added a new amazing ‘fact’ that it could ‘ disappear from woodland within 20 years as traditional orchards decline.’  Whatever that means.  Mistletoe doesn’t grow in woodlands – so it can hardly disappear from them.  And why orchard loss affects woodlands isn’t clear either.

The real story is simple – orchards are declining, the mistletoe crop is mostly from orchards, and so the mistletoe crop is threatened.  Not the mistletoe in the wider countryside though – that’s increasing if anything.  So there’s a threat to the crop only.  What is the relevance to wildlife?  Well, in wildlife terms mistletoe in orchards is good – adding considerably to their biodiversity.  So there is a good wildlife argument for keeping mistletoe going in orchards, and for keeping orchards – but that’s just a ‘good thing’, it’s not essential for mistletoe per se.

The wider story is a little more complex – older, neglected orchards often have too  much mistletoe – and this is increasing their decline.  So if there has to be a wildlife campaign this season, please promote proper management of mistletoe, not run overly simplistic scare stories about mistletoe being threatened.