ARC believes it is important that people have opportunities to see amphibians and reptiles in the wild. Without public understanding of amphibians and reptiles, it will be more difficult to conserve them. Moreover, ARC’s vision is for a world in which amphibians and reptiles are widely appreciated, and this will be easier to achieve if people can see the animals in their natural habitats. Thus, much of ARC’s work is about facilitating access to amphibians and reptiles. For instance, we welcome visits to our nature reserves, where people can experience even our more elusive species. ARC also offers training, monitoring, volunteer tasks and regional projects where people can encounter these animals.

However, public access carries risks for amphibians and reptiles. The animals can be harmed either deliberately or inadvertently, at least under some circumstances. Therefore we believe it is essential to balance the advantages of encouraging access with the disadvantages of harm to individual animals and populations.

The good news is that generally the positives outweigh the negatives, or at least there are often ways to mitigate the negative effects. The following text offers some guidance on recognising and managing the risks of harm from public access. All linked references are listed in full below under 'Further reading'. We will add to this page over time, and we welcome any comments on how to improve the guidance. We would be especially interested to hear about your experiences of managing public access (please email to: [email protected] with “Public access guidance” in the subject line).

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A) The positive effects of public access

B) The negative effects of public access

C) Evidence for harmful impacts

D) Balancing positive and negative effects of public access

E) When might public access cause particular harm?

F) Strategies for managing impacts

G) Advice for photographers

H) Advice on reducing human-snake conflict

I) Use of signs on adder sites

J) Exceptions for when deliberate disturbance is justified

K) Further reading

A) The positive effects of public access

Encouraging access to areas used by reptiles and amphibians can have a number of beneficial impacts:

  • Helping with public understanding and appreciation of amphibians and reptiles.
  • Nurturing a relationship between people and their local environment.
  • Assisting with communications including gathering photographs and videos.
  • Assisting with monitoring and research.
  • Increasing vigilance for threats to amphibians and reptiles.
  • Reducing the likelihood of some threats.

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B) The negative effects of public access

There are several ways to categorise the harmful impacts of public access. Here we follow an approach set out in a report that thoroughly examined the issue for amphibians and reptiles in Britain (Edgar, 2002). The diagram below explains the range of effects. These focus on disturbance both with and without contact, habitat alteration, and indirect effects. Aside from the effects of people themselves, public access can affect animals in other ways, for instance through the impacts of dogs, bikes and drones.

The resulting effects may be noticeable in individual amphibians and reptiles, and in more severe cases the size, distribution or even viability of a population may be affected. The tracing of public access through to tangible impacts on populations is complex, but we believe that under some conditions there is sufficient rationale to manage or prevent access so that potential harm is avoided.

Types of impact arising from public access

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C) Evidence for harmful impacts

There is unfortunately only a small amount of published evidence on this topic for British amphibians and reptiles, and indeed for these groups globally. There are many observations about disturbance impacts made by surveyors but these are generally not formally documented. In some cases reports of harm through public access are mentioned incidentally in studies focusing on other themes. The following gives a brief summary of insights from the scientific literature and conservation practitioner experience.

For amphibians and reptiles in general, there is some evidence for harmful effects of public access, some evidence showing little or no impact, and some evidence of apparent habituation (i.e. when animals tolerate disturbance after a period of exposure). For example, see the reviews that include some consideration of reptiles and amphibians by Larson et al 2016 and Miller et al 2020. It is worth noting that research articles reporting on “recreation” and “disturbance” frequently include harm due to outright habitat loss caused by construction associated with public access, whereas in the discussion here we focus on the effects due to human presence and its immediate consequences; in practice, construction impacts are typically handled separately.

Three studies in particular give compelling evidence for harmful effects of public access on reptiles: one showing that close approaches by tourists in an Indian national park negatively affected python behaviour, and one from the USA showing that recreation reduced lizard occupancy, and one showing that rattlesnakes in Arizona substantially alter their behaviour in response to human disturbance.

In Britain, the review by Edgar (2002) suggested that impacts from public access are likely to be most severe for sand lizard and adder. Numerous anecdotes suggest that public access affects amphibians and reptiles under certain circumstances; for example, many surveyors attest to higher levels of access leading to the introduction of fish and invasive aquatic plants, and reptiles being affected by disturbance caused by repeated photography. A particularly striking type of impact is deliberate killing of snakes, which regrettably still occurs even though it is illegal. A peer-reviewed analysis of monitoring data for the adder suggested that “public pressure” is a negative factor at almost half of all study sites, although how that pressure arises varies between sites. This closely reflects ARC’s experience that small adder populations appear especially vulnerable to intensive public access, and reinforces efforts to manage impacts at such sites. Projects on similar species such as Orsini’s viper emphasise the sensitivity of snakes to public access, and the remedial effects of public engagement.

Animals may respond to human presence in ways that are perhaps unexpected. For example, the colour of clothing worn by surveyors affects how some lizards respond to disturbance. More research into public access impacts will be available in future. There is growing interest in how we manage access to nature reserves, and how emerging pressures such as social media trends and public use of remotely piloted aircraft (drones) could impact on wildlife. The covid-19 pandemic has brought about changes to public access, with some sites being visited more and some less frequently; ARC has unfortunately noted a substantial increase in harmful impacts, especially littering, at some of our reserves. Research into the impacts of this enforced change in public access could be especially useful, and is already underway in Britain and overseas.

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D) Balancing positive and negative effects of public access

There is no simple, standard way to assess the pros and cons of public access, as each case will be different. Researchers and land managers have published suggestions about how this might be done (e.g. see this review for wildlife in California), although they are not readily applicable to British reptiles and amphibians. There are some useful reviews for other species, especially birds, and for particular habitat types (e.g. see this Forestry Commission report on recreational impacts).

This sign discourages visitors from allowing dogs to enter natterjack toad breeding pools, whilst providing information about conservation and ecology. Photo: Jim Foster/ARC.

We suggest the following as general guidance:

  • The default should be to allow and encourage public access, except where there are reasonable grounds to suspect this may be harmful.
  • Where there is a likelihood of harm, attempts should be made to avoid or substantially reduce that harm.
  • If it appears unlikely that harm can be avoided or reduced, then public access should be discouraged, restricted or - where appropriate and feasible - prohibited.
  • In order to gather evidence, there should be monitoring of species status, as well as the type and amount of public access and any measures to manage it.

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E) When might public access cause particular harm?

A number of factors need to be taken into account to help identify where public access could cause particular problems:

Visitors often sat on this log at an important reptile site. After ARC comments about increased risks of disturbance to reptiles and ground-nesting birds and increased fire risk, the site owner moved the log to more appropriate location. Photo: Jim Foster/ARC.

  • The species present: sand lizard and adder appear generally to be most sensitive, though other species are vulnerable to particular types of public access effects.
  • The population and its vulnerability: small, isolated populations, including recent translocations, are generally more likely to be at risk than large, well connected ones.
  • The scale of public access: public access that is frequent and intensive, and where access is allowed close to critical habitat features, will generally be of more concern than occasional visits or visits to habitat of lower significance.
  • The type of effects anticipated: access that is likely to lead to population-level effects is more concerning than access causing short-lived changes in non-critical behaviour.
  • Potential for controlling access: sites with no wardening presence or other potential for remedial actions may be more at risk, as disturbance may be unrestricted and unmonitored.
  • History of public access: sites where recent history has shown impacts, including on other species, would be more concerning.

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F) Strategies for managing impacts

There are three broad approaches to managing impacts that might arise from public access: manage the species; manage the site; or “manage” the visitors. Managing the species – typically moving animals away from public access areas – is only appropriate under exceptional conditions, and should be viewed as a last resort.

Specific management for the site will be appropriate in some cases. It might involve managing habitat to discourage movement by the species into areas of risk, or screening areas from public view by allowing scrub or tree growth. Clearly, generally improving the quality of habitat can improve the resilience of populations to public access impacts.

In many cases, the best approach will involve some form of engagement with site visitors. This could include:

  • Signs, leaflets, online advice and/or wardening giving advice to avoid sensitive areas, and the reasoning.
  • Exclusion of access to particular areas, or allowing only by appointment.
  • Re-routed paths, bridleways, or bike routes.
  • Removal or re-positioning of infrastructure (benches, logs, signs etc) likely to increase intensive access in vulnerable areas.
  • Hides, fences or ropes to provide a set-back distance from particularly sensitive features.
  • Advice via signage etc to avoid particular high risk activities (e.g. keep dogs on leads).
  • Encouraging access to areas of the site that are less important for the species of concern.
  • Restricting information about site location.
  • Encouraging visits to sites with robust populations where there is less risk of harmful impacts.
Amphibians occur in shallow pools around the edge of this flooded quarry popular with swimmers (Czech Republic). Signs inform visitors of the value of these pools, and warn against moving fish into them, as fish would rapidly deplete amphibians. Photo: Jim Foster.

The site manager will be the best point of contact for any surveyor wishing to raise concerns about public access. Remember that disturbance is illegal for European Protected Species of amphibian and reptile, and so site managers and their colleagues have a valid reason for reminding visitors not to disturb these species. Site managers may value discussions that reflect on approaches used for reducing public access impacts on birds – hides, seasonal path closures, targeted interpretation and so on – as these are now common practice, yet may be equally useful for amphibians and reptiles. It is worth bearing in mind that the site manager will often have a range of contrasting objectives and constraints to balance.

We encourage site managers to document efforts to manage public access, and involve volunteers and researchers to help. This is an area where more evidence is needed, and it lends itself to straightforward evidence gathering. The Conservation Evidence initiative provides guidance on how to do this.

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G) Advice for photographers

In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in interest from photographers wishing to capture images of amphibians and reptiles in the wild. This is likely driven by a combination of factors: more interest in these species, improved camera and phone technology, online information about site locations, and social media trends for posting images. At some sites, including ARC nature reserves, the intensity of photographic activity has caused problems. This arises through disturbance to animals, vegetation trampling, and positioning or even removal of animals to allow better photos. It appears to be a particular issue for the adder, which attracts acute interest from photographers especially around emergence from hibernation, a time when it is especially vulnerable.

Disturbance is a well recognised issue in photographic practice, and there is a Nature Photographer’s Code of Practice produced by the Royal Photographic Society. This code would be worth drawing to the attention of more enthusiastic photographers. Although not entirely relevant to amphibians and reptiles, the code of practice for bird photography published in British Birds is a good general reference.

ARC offers the following guidance for photographers wishing to capture images of adders; some of this will be equally relevant to other species where there is a risk of harmful effects. Site managers and others engaging with photographers may wish to draw photographers’ attention to this guidance.

Taking photos of adders in publicly accessible collections, as here at Wildwood in Kent, is a responsible way of securing high quality images. Photo: Jim Foster/ARC.

  • Don’t pick up or touch adders.
  • Keep your distance – stay at least 3 metres away from the adders.
  • Use a long (telephoto) lens.
  • Where possible, use methods and gear that will allow you to increase your distance from the subject – e.g. camera with a high resolution sensor, digital zoom, photograph through binoculars, crop images in post-production.
  • Keep photography visits brief and infrequent, and avoid rapid body movements.
  • Be especially careful to avoid intensive photography where the adder population is small and/or declining.
  • Don’t encourage fellow photographers to visit sensitive sites.
  • Be careful to avoid trampling vegetation.
  • For anything beyond a short photographic visit, discuss your plans with the site manager in advance.
  • If posting photos online, where appropriate make it clear that you’ve not disturbed the adder; consider using the #undisturbed hashtag.
  • Consider visiting a zoo or wildlife centre (such as to take photos, instead of disturbing wild adders.
  • Consider using ARC’s adder photo library to get free high quality images without disturbing adders.
  • Use your images and observations to help conservation – visit more information on how to do this, and in particular consider contributing to the Make the Adder Count ( monitoring project co-ordinated by ARG UK.

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H) Advice on reducing human-snake conflict

Snakes can arouse strong negative feelings in some people. Being the only venomous snake in Britain, adders in particular have suffered historically from a poor public image. In some cases this leads to adders being harassed, captured or even killed, and other snakes and slow-worms are often treated similarly. ARC is involved in a range of initiatives to improve the understanding of adders, for example through engagement with people who live in areas supporting adders and production of animated video guides.

In terms of managing public access impacts on adders on a particular site, the following general guidance applies:

  • Assess the potential impacts that public access may have on the adder population, using the points under “Strategies for managing impacts”, above, as a general guide.
  • Watch out in particular for disturbance of adders emerging from hibernation and in favoured basking areas, and trampling of vegetation. This may result from walkers, dog walkers, surveyors or photographers. Bear in mind that occasional disturbance is unlikely to be harmful in the long term. The prime conservation concern arises from repeated, intensive disturbance at key habitat features on sites supporting small adder populations.
  • It may be possible to re-route public access to avoid certain areas during especially important periods, notably spring emergence (typically February-April). Likewise, public attention to these sensitive areas can be reduced through the planting of vegetation screens, or allowing vegetation such as gorse to form a natural barrier. On-site interpretation, wardening, asking people to keep to paths, requiring dogs to be on leads or under close control, and requiring stand-off distances from key habitat through fencing/ropes can be appropriate ways to reduce impacts.
  • Refer to advice on encouraging responsible dog walking, such as the South Downs National Park Take The Lead initiative.
  • ARC provides detailed information on the risk of adder bite to people and pets, and how to avoid it. This can be referred to by site managers wishing to convey accurate information to site visitors.

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I) Use of signs on adder sites

There is occasional demand from site visitors or site owners to display signs warning of the risk of adder bites. ARC’s view is that such “warning signs” are almost always unhelpful and can be harmful. They can have the effect of unnecessarily worrying site visitors (the risk of adder bite is exceedingly low), and can lead to persecution of adders.

We suggest that communicating about the possible risk of adder bites is best done as part of the overall messaging about wildlife on the site. The language and imagery should be simple, reassuring, calm and factual. It is important that the medical seriousness of adder bite is not downplayed, yet the low risk of a bite should be mentioned.

Here is some suggested text for a nature reserve sign, leaflet or website, which could be adapted to suit a particular reserve:

You may spot adders as you walk around the reserve. Being sun-lovers, they can be seen basking on banks, tracks and at the woodland edge. The adder is unfortunately becoming rarer across Britain, and is legally protected. It is also our only venomous snake, but avoids contact with people and dogs. Adder bites are very rare, normally only occurring as a last resort when an adder feels threatened or is stepped on. Please keep to paths, watch where you step, and keep your dog under close control. If you see an adder, please admire it from a distance. In the unlikely event of a bite, stay calm and seek medical or veterinary attention immediately. Adder bites are potentially very serious but effective treatment is readily available for people and pets.

Noting that many people carry mobile phones whilst out walking, signs could refer to ARC’s website information on adder bite for further details.

Bilingual weatherproof A4 adder signs delivered to partners across South Wales will inform the local community about adders, encourage behaviour change and help to reduce the chances of adder bites on humans and dogs. Photo: Mark Barber/ARC.

In exceptional situations, there can be a greater than usual risk of bites because of high local adder abundance combined with intensive public use of a site. In such cases, it can be worthwhile investing in more targeted communications, aiming to reduce human-snake contact, encourage positive attitudes toward adders, and provide more information on how to respond should a bite occur.

Sadly there are still examples of adder warning signs being displayed on sites where adders do not occur. This can arise through misidentification and a desire to warn people about risks, but at times it is also done knowingly to deter people from entering land. In either case, the signs are unhelpful at best, and it is advisable for someone with knowledge of adders to engage constructively with the landowner, aiming for the sign to be removed.

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J) Exceptions for when deliberate disturbance is justified

We recognise that occasionally there is a valid reason to do something that causes temporary disturbance to individual animals. This might be, for example, when capturing animals to measure them for a research project, or taking photographs for a conservation project or media event. In order to justify such disturbance, the person leading the activity should weigh up the pros and cons of the proposed disturbance. They should ask:

  • Is there an alternative to the proposed course of action that avoids the disturbance?
  • If not, how can the disturbance be minimised?
  • How can the conservation benefits be maximised?
  • How can the activity be conducted so that it does not encourage further disturbance?

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K) Further reading

Agence régionale pour l'environnement Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur (2011). Report and perspectives - LIFE 06/Nat/F/000143 2006-2010: Conservation of the French populations of Orsini’s viper. ARPE-PACA, Aix-en-Provence.

Armstrong, A., Brockett, B., Eustice, T., Lorentzon, A., O’Brien, L., Williams, S. (2021) Why Society Needs Nature: Lessons from Research during Covid-19. Report by Environment Agency, Forest Research, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales & NatureScot.

Baker, J. (2015). Adders, photography and disturbance. White Admiral (Newsletter of the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society) 91, 16-19.

Beale, M., Poulin, S., Ivanyi, C., & Blouin-Demers, G. (2016). Anthropogenic disturbance affects movement and increases concealment in Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Journal of Herpetology, 50(2), 216-221.

Fondren, A., Swierk, L., & Putman, B. J. (2020). Clothing color mediates lizard responses to humans in a tropical forest. Biotropica, 52(1), 172-181.

Edgar, P. 2002. The effects of public access on amphibians and reptiles. CCW Contract Science Report No 478. Countryside Council for Wales, Bangor.

Gardner, E., Julian, A., Monk, C., & Baker, J. (2019). Make the Adder Count: population trends from a citizen science survey of UK adders. Herpetological Journal, 29, 57-70.

Larson, C. L. (2019). Effects of Outdoor Recreation on Wildlife in Protected Areas. Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State University.

Larson, C. L., Reed, S. E., Merenlender, A. M., & Crooks, K. R. (2016). Effects of recreation on animals revealed as widespread through a global systematic review. PloS one, 11(12), e0167259.

Manenti, R., Mori, E., Di Canio, V., Mercurio, S., Picone, M., Caffi, M., ... & Rubolini, D. (2020). The good, the bad and the ugly of COVID-19 lockdown effects on wildlife conservation: Insights from the first European locked down country. Biological Conservation, 249, 108728.

Marzano, M. & Dandy, N. (2012). Recreational use of forests and disturbance of wildlife – a literature review. Forestry Commission Research Report. Forestry Commission, Edinburgh.

Miller, A. B., King, D., Rowland, M., Chapman, J., Tomosy, M., Liang, C., ... & Truex, R. L. (2020). Sustaining wildlife with recreation on public lands: a synthesis of research findings, management practices, and research needs. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-993. Portland, OR: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 226 p., 993.

Mitrovich, M., Larson, C. L., Barrows, K., Beck, M., & Unger, R. (2020). Balancing conservation and recreation. California Fish and Wildlife, 11.

Mukherjee, A., Kumara, H. N., & Bhupathy, S. (2018). Sun-basking, a necessity not a leisure: Anthropogenic driven disturbance, changing the basking pattern of the vulnerable Indian rock python in Keoladeo National Park, India. Global Ecology and Conservation, 13, e00368.

Pagel, C. D., Orams, M., & Lück, M. (2020). # BiteMe: Considering the potential influence of social media on in-water encounters with marine wildlife. Tourism in Marine Environments, 15(3-4), 249-258.

Royal Photographic Society (2007) The Nature Photographers' Code of Practice. RPS.

Tipling, D. (2011). Bird photography—A new code of practice. British Birds, 104(4), 223.

Wallace, P., Martin, R., & White, I. (2018). Keeping pace with technology: drones, disturbance and policy deficiency. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 61(7), 1271-1288.

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