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The British Adder
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.
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.
What is your gut reaction when you see or hear about snakes?
Are you aware that many different snake venoms are being tested and used to treat serious medical conditions?
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.
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.