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The British Adder

Updated on February 4, 2015
A sunbathing adder
A sunbathing adder | Source
An adder under a rock while sunbathing
An adder under a rock while sunbathing | Source

Who said that Britain's wildlife was dull? Nothing could be further from the truth. Take for instance our resilient reptiles.

Due to the cold damp climate Britain only has a limited amount of reptiles, but the species we do have are amazingly hardy, fascinating and beautiful. One of these tough, natural Brits' is the Adder - Vipera Berus .

Snakes and other reptiles obviously prefer warm climates with plenty of sunshine, due to the fact of their cold-bloodedness. So it is even more amazing that this snake, along with its other reptile cousins can exist in Britain at all. Of the three native species of snake in Britain, there is much to admire about the Adder. This reptile is the UK's only venomous specimen and is the only snake to be found in Scotland. Both England and Wales have two other, non-venomous species while Ireland has none.

Adders have a fairly thickset body but they are not big - they can grow up to 90cm but the majority don't reach 60cm in length. The female is larger than the male. The Adder also has a much broader head than the other British snakes, with an angular shape and upturned nose. The eyes are very unique for the British species, being large with a reddish colour and vertical pupil.

Colours can vary but in the main the males tend to be grey-white/brown with a distintinctive black zig-zag pattern down the back. The females are generally more buff in colour with a dark brown zig-zag down her back. But in reality it can be very difficult to tell them apart, particularly if you only get a fleeting glance. Both have a distinct 'V' or 'X' mark at the back of the head. More rare are the melanistic forms that are coloured completely black.

Adder colours can vary - some are even all black.
Adder colours can vary - some are even all black. | Source
Dance of the adders. This is two males gently battling it out for the attention of a female.
Dance of the adders. This is two males gently battling it out for the attention of a female. | Source

Adders hibernate from around October until the spring - ususally when the temperature rises to 9c or higher. The males are the first to become active and go in search of a partner. They will often duel each other for the right to mate, however this does not inflict injury on either snake. When one male successfully pins his rival's head to the ground, then he is the victor and the looser will simply move off. The female gives birth to around 5-20 live young, who are approximately 15 cm at birth. The mother will stay with her young for a day or so when they are then left to fend for themselves. The baby snakes will go almost immediately into hibernation and it is quite common for young adders not to eat until their second year.

Adders are not fussy eaters and prey on a variety of animals such as mice, voles, eggs, birds and frogs and this may contribute greatly to their fairly robust numbers, even although the female only reproduces every second year. They have a variety of favourite habitats such as open woodland, heathlands, moors and riverbanks. They are extremely difficult to spot due to their near perfect camouflage. When they attack prey and inject venom the Adder gives one bite and retreats. The venom can take a few minutes to work by which time the prey's essential functions have been paralysed, causing death. The Adder will then seek out the dead animal by smell and eat it.

Although the Adder is venomous it very rarerly attacks unless harassed or threatened. It is a placid and shy animal and when it senses sound vibrations it moves swiftly away to hide in order to avoid confrontation. Most bites are caused by people trying to pick them up.The venom is quite potent but only a small amount is injected. The body's reaction to the bite is normally minor although extremely painful. In addition the Adder is not a repeat biter - some species of venomous snake will bite twice or more when defending themselves. Healthy human adults would certainly survive a bite but immediate medical attention should be found as soon as possible. People who may be at risk are those who are susceptible to anaphylactic shock. It is also reported that gardeners may be more at risk due to the few accounts on record of them being bitten even although they have not seen the snake. On investigation the majority if not all these reports have turned out to be bites by spiders - quite a number of British species can give a nasty nip. Within a period of 100 years only 12 people have died due to Adder bites, many more have died from reactions to insect stings.

Pets such as cats and dogs do get bitten but again the Adder bite is rarely fatal. Nevertheless if your pet does sustain a bite you must seek immediate veterinary assistance. In spring, the venom of the males is particularly strong, therefore it is recommended that in known Adder hotspots dogs are keep on a leash as a precaution.


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Beautiful photograph of a Grass Snake.
Beautiful photograph of a Grass Snake. | Source

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The Adder's Cousins

For the sake of comparison and identification we'll take a look at the remaining British and non-venomous snakes:

  • Smooth Snake - non-venomous. Of the remaining three snakes this is the one that is usually mistaken for an Adder. It certainly grows to about the same length as the Adder but it's body is very slim in comparison. In addition the Smooth Snake has a very different shape of head - it is not so angular. The pupil of the eye is different as well, it does not have a vertical slit like the Adder but a round pupil. There is very often a black mark at the back of the Smooth Snake's head that could be mistaken for being an Adder's 'V' but it is different and in addition the Smooth Snake does not have the zig-zag formation running down its back like most of the Adders do. The Smooth Snake is like a Boa Constrictor in minature. It coils around small reptiles and mammals, squeezing until the victim is dead and then eating its prey. If handled it can bite and even draw blood but it is harmless. Lastly this reptile is now quite rare and only a few people have ever been fortunate to see one. Programmes are now in place that are re-introducing the species to special areas in the South of England and this is proving to be very successful.
  • Grass Snake - non venomous. Of the three species the Grass Snake is by far the largest. It can grow to over a metre (3 feet or more) in length. Apart from the size another distinction is the zig-zag pattern on the back is missing as well as the Adder's 'V' or 'X' mark. But the Grass Snake does have a distinctive yellow collar at the back of the head. In youngsters this collar is very often bright yellow. The main colouring for the Grass Snake is olive-green with a series of black spots running to the sides and top. But you also have species that are shades of grey or brown. In addition this species has a round pupil within the eye rather than the Adder's vertical one. When discovered the Grass Snake will often play dead and it may also give off a pungent odour. It is not known for this snake to bite but rearing up in mock defence while giving a warning hiss is fairly common. However, this reptile is harmless. The Grass Snake is very strong and loves the water as much as being on land. Its favourite food is amphibians and small fish.
  • Slow worm - non venomous. The slow worm is not in fact a snake at all but a legless lizard. Unlike snakes this reptile can close it eyes, has external ears and a blunt tongue. It is also a favourite with gardners as the Slow worm is a prolific eater of slugs.This leg-less lizard will grow up to 45cm/18" and they can have slight markings at the back of the head that on first inspection may resemble the Adder, but they are very different. The colouration when young is a black underside with gold on top. The adult colouration of the female tends to be mostly dark, the male is paler, often with a blue underside. If found the Slow Worm tends to stay motionless hoping that its excellent camouflage will protect it. If you pick one up be warned - they may defecate on your hand through fright and you will also be left with just the top of their tail - this drops off as a defence and then re-grows.

Beautiful close up of the adder
Beautiful close up of the adder | Source

The beautiful Adder is not yet endangered even although much of its natural habitat has been destroyed or polluted. In addition, the superstitious fear of the animal has died down greatly and they are now in much less danger of being killed by humans. However, the Adder is still protected under law, (Countryside Act 1981), and it is an offense to kill or capture one.

If you do happen to come across an Adder:

  • Don't be frightened. Stand Still and wait for the snake to move off - it is probably already trying to make its escape.
  • Remember most bites are accidental - usually when people stand on the snake because they have not seen it due to its camouflage. If you are in an Adder hotspot wear good walking boots. Stamping quite hard when going through the undergrowth where the Adder can be almost invisible, will trigger the snake to seek cover out of your way long before you reach it. However the chances of standing on an Adder is extremely slim.
  • If the Adder is in your garden, bring children and pets indoors until it has moved off. If you are unsure call the RSPCA or SSPCA if in Scotland.
  • Never attempt to move or pick up the snake yourself. You will be bitten and there is a high risk of the animal being injured as well.
  • If a bite does occur - don't panic. In many cases the Adder often gives a 'dry bite' as a warning. In this case no venom will have been injected. Either way immobilise the bite area and the casualty should remain still. Seek medical attention whether you think venom has been injected or not.
  • The bite area - do not under any circumstances attempt first aid such as sucking out the venom, using tourniques, knives to cut the wound etc. Amateur attempts such as these could lead to a person losing a limb or worse. Call for medical attention immediately and leave the treatment to the professionals.

But keep in mind that the scenario above, even in an Adder hotspot, is highly unlikely to occur. As mentioned earlier, they are a timid and calm species of snake. They only react if they feel they are under attack. Give them a wide berth and they will be more than willing to stay out of your way.

I started this article by asking if Britain's wildlife is boring? As long as we have animals such as the Adder and our many other species,our wildlife will continue to be exciting and fascinating to those who take the time to look, respect and cherish our heritage.


Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    4 years ago

    Great read! Who would've thought I'd find an Adder so interesting!

  • RoadMonkey profile image


    4 years ago

    I grew up in Wales and in those days, the children were sometimes allowed out at lunchtime onto the hill behind the school (not these days!). Our school lessons in spring included how to recognise an adder and that it was poisonous and how to tell the difference from a grass snake.

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 

    4 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    Hi Seeker7, I live in Fl. so I watch out for rattlesnakes in April and May. I have to keep watching for them as it is mating season in April and May. My Rhodesian Ridgeback got bit and she did survive. This was a very interesting and useful Hub. Stella

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    Really enjoyed reading your hub about British snakes. I was never lucky enough to see one when living in the UK, so they really are shy. Snakes are beautiful animals, and I have four pythons as pets.

  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 

    4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    The adder is so cute too. I have seen all of Britain's snakes at some time or other. The Grass snake is actually more frightening as it will rear up and hiss. I had to take a good look to make sure that was what it was. It is actually much more likely to bite you than the shy old Adder.

    Never knew the slow worm was actually a lizard before, they are quite cute too and are more afraid of us than we of them!

  • RTalloni profile image


    4 years ago from the short journey

    So interesting to read of Britain's adder and other snakes. Definitely not a dull selection. :) I grew up in Florida around poisonous and non-poisonous snakes in the garden and wild lands (which have been greatly reduced by concrete, btw). Learning about these creatures is the best defense from the ones that pose any danger.

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 

    4 years ago from sunny Florida

    Very interesting and informative..I always learn a lot about reptiles even though sometimes I have read of them before. This is my first time of reading of the British adder and others you shared. And by the way, I readily and unabashedly admit I would not be picking them up and all like the fellow did in the second video. It was quite interesting to me to see such a big collection of them under the piece of aluminum.and the one little critter that he said was playing dead.

    Great job

    voted up+++ shared g+

  • greatstuff profile image


    4 years ago from Malaysia

    Sorry, I know I am going off topic, but the moment I saw your title, Rowan Atkinson's The Black Adder, came to mind!

    Interesting to know that Adder is a timid and calm species, just like the TV series!!

    Anyway, Congrats on your HOTD.

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    I guess most of you have heard the child-hood joke: "Why couldn't the viper vipe her nose? Because the Adder 'ad 'er 'ankerchief."

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    Nice information you have shared with us but i nervous while reading this topic

  • souvikm16 profile image

    Souvik Mukherjee 

    4 years ago from Bangalore, India

    A very informative hub. Voted up! And not just adders. The do's and don'ts' written here apply to almost all venomous snakes in the world. And I am a firm believer of the fact no wildlife is actually dull irrespective of the country or any specific geographic region. Wildlife and nature are perhaps the only remaining colorful elements of this modern world!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi sallybea, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub.

    I have to say it really annoys me when Britain's wildlife is reported as dull or lacking variety - I agree with you, if people take the trouble to look, there is no end to the wonders that Britain has to offer.

  • sallybea profile image

    Sally Gulbrandsen 

    6 years ago from Norfolk

    British nature is certainly not dull, it is filled with fascinating creatures and insects if one is interested enough to go looking. Snakes are definitely not on my list of desired viewing but I still think they are beautiful - from a distance. Interesting Hub, thanks for sharing.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    7 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi jami,

    Lovely to hear from you! That's really interesting about you keeping snakes - they are very beautiful animals!! I am fascinated with them, but I also have a healthy respect for their abilities to protect themselves. Besides I much prefer my dogs who I can have a conversation with, play football(soccer) with and take for long walks - don't think a snake would appreciate any of this.

    I have seen quite a few documentaries about the USA being infiltrated with foreign species - the cause being, as you rightly say, by idiots! It's not only devasating to the indigenous species of America but also for the countries where these reptiles are being taken from - and all for money, greed and for the 'look at me I've got a dangerous snake' effect. There is no true love or caring for the animals involved, if there was, they would not be buying them and would campaign to have the trade stopped. So I appreciate your feelings on this matter and it's sad that you had to give up caring for your pet snakes!

    Anyway, sorry for the novel! LOL! Glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks again for stopping by!

  • profile image

    jami l. pereira 

    7 years ago

    Hi Seeker7 , Thought i would pop over and see hwat you have been working on as of late, and you have been busy ! :) I used to raise boas ,and rats to feed them , but since the snakes from other countries have started migrating here through idiots bringing them here and releasing them , well , i haven't had anything to do with snakes in about 10 years, i like the harmless ones grass snakes , green and racer striped, that's about it , anything that bites and or makes you sick or poisons you ..well , im going the other direction .Soon the whole united states will be full of cobras , boas, pythins etc. Florida had a multitude of them already , and im just in Texas , not far ... This was a great Hub , very informative and useful and interesting and awesome , i voted it up and pushed all those buttons for you ! Have a great evening , rest peacfully ! :)

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Ddraigcoch,

    Great to hear from you and many thanks for stopping by. I'm like you, I think snakes are not only beatiful animals but fascinating as well - although I do have a healthy wariness. As for the Cute British Adder - although maybe not in the same league as rattlers and cobras etc. - it has a resiliance and toughness that the the more exotic species maybe lack, especially in relation to the northern European weather.

  • Ddraigcoch profile image


    8 years ago from UK

    I adore snakes and I loved reading this hub Seeker. Well done on a great hub.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Wow! Thanks for this info Mel - fascinating animals. I haven't heard of the grey nurse shark, so I'll look that one up. Yuck - imagine seeing a sight like that when you are just a kid - no wonder you Australians are tough cookies! LOL.

    I think our fish n' chips are just the good old cod - great with salt, vinegar and loads of brown sauce!!!!

  • Mel Jay profile image

    Mel Jay 

    8 years ago from Australia

    Hi Seeker, well there are so many types of sharks here, among the deadliest are the great whites, but another very deadly shark is the grey nurse. When I was a small kid, we were camping at a beach location and some fishermen brought in a grey nurse they had killed just off the coast. When they opened it up it had someone's remains with a wedding ring stuck in its intestines. One of those lovely Australian childhood memories, lol! Interesting fact about sharks here is that 'flake', the flesh of small sharks, gummy sharks, is what we eat in our fish and chips in many places. I wonder if that is the case elsewhere? You are very right about not swimming where they are though, every year there are shark warnings and you would have to be mad to ignore them. It's pretty interesting that you have a vegetarian shark, puts a whole new spin on sharks for me - Cheers, Mel

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Mel, glad that you liked the hub and our wee Adder.

    Our snakes are certainly not in the league of those from Australia - don't you guys have the most poisonous species on the planet? Also the Adder is very small and again compared to species found in Australia, it would probably look like a baby snake and a small one at that. I agree with you about the spiders - they scare the crap out of me. The UK ones are okay and not too big, so I'll stick with them thank you very much. Sharks are absolutely fascinating, but I think I would be scared to go too deep in the water where they are know to swim. The only sharks we have are the small dog fish - cute little thing. And the huge basking shark that is vegetarian. There might be more UK species of shark, but I don't know them. Again, not exactly like a great white or tiger - is that the species you get where you are? There are so many species that it's difficult to remember where they all hang out. Anyway, many thanks again for stopping by, it was great to hear from you.

  • Mel Jay profile image

    Mel Jay 

    8 years ago from Australia

    What a cute little snake that adder is! I didn't even know you guys had snakes over there, it being so cold. As an Australian I grew up with snakes all around in certain places at certain times, they even used to hang out on the school oval in summer sometimes. We are very snake aware here and most people know first aid for snake bites. The snakes don't really bother me too much, its the spiders that are really scary, I think. Not to mention the marine life, I grew up on the coast near shark infested beaches. Some poor swimmer/surfer would get taken by a shark every so often, often a tourist. When I was little I used to go looking for the 'pretty little blue octopuses' when skin-diving in the rocks until my Dad told me they were the blue-ringed octopus, which can kill you within an hour or so. Great hub, really enjoyed it, up and useful from me, Cheers, Mel

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi loveslove,

    Many thanks for stopping by and for the comment. I think that the fear of snakes is really an instinct in most of us. For me, I can cope with the tiny wee Adder, but some of those huge snakes abroad? Nope - I'm like you I would be terrified. I do love watching them on TV though. Many thanks again for stopping by.

  • Loveslove profile image


    8 years ago from England

    I am petrified of snakes..even a picture makes me shudder ..but I did read the HUB and found it interesting .

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hope you had a nice time at your shack. Scary but fascinatng having all that wildlife around you. The flies sound gross though!!! And I moan about the Scottish midges on the West coast?

  • attemptedhumour profile image


    8 years ago from Australia

    Hi i just got back from our shack. There's a brown snake living about five metres from our back steps in a clump of grass under a tree. Also there is a Tiger snake between us and our neighbour. We have the phone number of a fellow who removes them. )Might need to phone him) There are lots of spiders, lizards and great gig march flies. The flies are the biggest problem as they sting when they land on you and insect repellent doesn't seem to work. It's still great though and very peaceful once we go inside. The snakes aren't a problem as the crocodiles eat them. (only joking) Cheers

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi attemptedhumour - oh, so sorry about your dog! That's the only down thing about having them is if something crappy happens or when they go naturally - I still bubble over my first dog, Mush and that was 20 years ago and bubble over the others that have now gone, what a wimp I am.

    Thanks though for your comments and the great information - I love our wee Adder species but don't think it quite comes into the league of the Brown Snake or the, is it a Tiger Snake? As well as the others. Australia does look beautiful and the snakes I could just about cope with, not sure about all those spiders though!!! many thanks again and hope you and your dogs keep safe.

  • attemptedhumour profile image


    8 years ago from Australia

    Hi seeker, i spent the first twenty five years of my life living in England. As kids we would roam around all over the local area in parks, along river and canal banks and in old quarries or sand mines, but luckily we never encountered an adder. I do remember someone being bitten by one, but not fatally. We live in Melbourne now and have recently bought a shack about ninety minutes drive away in them thar hills. We were there last week when our oldest dog Pooch was bitten by a brown snake. It's the second most venomous snake in the world. We had an hours drive to a vet and by then it was too late. Pooch was sixteen years old too so his chances of survival were small. We have five other dogs and we are in the process of clearing all the heavy grass from the block. It's only a third of an acre so we have done most it. Australia has nine out of ten of the world's most venomous snakes so we'd better be careful. Your hub was very interesting, we love our adder and would be disappointed without it's presence. I'd forgotten a lot of the details about adders and was unaware of the other species. Cheers mate and watch where you are treading.


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