Water pollution is threatening to wipe out UK’s life-saving leeches, experts warn
The medicinal leech is in danger of extinction in the UK because of water pollution, environmentalists say.
The creatures – once widespread across the country – are in as few as 25 ponds in Kent, Hampshire and Cumbria. It is the only British leech that can suck blood from humans.
Worming treatments for farm animals leaking into ponds are thought to have killed the leeches, according to the Freshwater Habitats Trust (FHT). They are still used by the NHS to improve blood flow, but are bred in laboratories.
Dr Jeremy Biggs, of the FHT, said the leeches ‘could easily go extinct in this country within 25 years’.
The charity hopes to reintroduce leeches to good-quality waters which used to have them
The charity hopes to reintroduce them to good-quality waters which used to have leeches.
‘We are thinking of doing that in Yorkshire, and it could be around the fringes of the New Forest, and there are some possibilities in the Lake District as well,’ Dr Biggs said.
Medicinal leeches do not spread any diseases to humans, and their bite is painless as they produce natural painkillers in their saliva.
Dr Biggs said: ‘These are really rare creatures that could easily go extinct in this country within 25 years if we don’t do anything about it.
‘They are found in other parts of Europe but they are not common anywhere.’
He added: ‘People think leeches are gross and slimy, an impression people may have got from watching programs on bloodsucking leeches in the Amazon.
‘They are just neat creatures, it’s so cool that there is such a thing, but of course people are brought up to be freaked out by anything that’s not warm and cuddly.’
‘We should learn to love leeches.’
Leeches are surprisingly hard to find – so the trust is developing a test that can sample the water of a pond or a ditch to see if medicinal leech DNA is present
Leeches are surprisingly hard to find – so the trust is developing a test that can sample the water of a pond or a ditch to see if medicinal leech DNA is present.
Once the DNA test is developed, conservationists will travel across the UK to test ponds and ditches to look for the elusive creatures.
The FHT will also launch three ‘ark’ collections where specimens of wild-caught leeches can be kept to ensure that a population of leeches remains.
Dr Biggs said the plan is to send conservationists back to places where medicinal leeches were recorded historically to see if there are any still there.
Existing ponds will need to be managed so they are more friendly to leeches, by cutting back overhanging foliage as medicinal leeches like warmer water.
He added: ‘We will possibly try to reintroduce them to good quality environments which used to have leeches, where ponds are good enough to support them.
‘We are thinking of doing that in Yorkshire, and it could be around the fringes of the New Forest, and there are some possibilities in the Lake District as well.’