‘You spotted snakes with double tongues’ Shakespeare called adders in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with their ‘enamelled skin, weed enough to wrap a fairy in.’ Clearly the Bard of Stratford thought they were alluring exotic creatures and had seen plenty of them in the Warwickshire countryside. They often come out to hunt by scent on warm summer nights so perhaps he’d noticed them during his alleged boyhood poaching excursions?
Alas the adder (viperus berus) is now much less common than it was in Shakespeare’s 16th and early 17th century. Pesticides and pollution have done their worst. And the poor beast doesn’t enjoy a very friendly public image, so for a long time many people killed any adder they saw. Even so, the adder is our commonest reptile. There are thought to be about half a million adders in Britain from Scotland to Cornwall, although not in Ireland. The story about 5th century St Patrick having cast the snakes out of Ireland is nice but scientifically it’s more likely that The Emerald Isle is just too wet to sustain them.
I waited over forty years for my first glimpse of a live adder in its natural habitat. And then, as luck would have it I saw two within a few weeks of each other – although they were at opposite ends of England. The first was at Keilder Water in the Northumberland National Park on a cool August day. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon and there was a bit a watery sunshine as I walked along a streamside path. And there stretched out in front of me as straight as ruler was Mr – or more probably Mrs – Adder. They’re famously deaf (‘the deaf adder that stoppeth up her ears’ as Psalm 58 elegantly puts it) so it didn’t hear me coming. About eighteen inches long it was reddish brown in colour with a bright zigzag line running dramatically along its back.
It was in no hurry to move – they are sluggish creatures by nature – so it allowed my husband to move in with a camera about two feet above its head before turning with slow reluctance and sliding off into the undergrowth and making us feel guilty for disturbing its sunbathing. For that’s what it was doing. Reptiles have variable body temperature. Unlike mammals they have no inbuilt ‘thermostat’. So they are very inactive until they’ve absorbed enough warmth from the sun to get them going. Only then are they able to hunt the small mammals, lizards, birds and eggs that they live on.
My second adder was at Bedgebury Pinetum, near Tonbridge in Kent in very different weather. It was as blisteringly hot as Sicily and the adder had gone into the lake for a cooling swim. Reptiles need warmth but they can’t afford to overheat. It was swimming happily along, its tiny delicate head held aloft and its muscular body spiralling along behind to provide the forward momentum. It was a lovely sight.
Adders are viviparous, which means that, instead of depositing them, the female retains her eggs inside the body until they are ready to hatch. Because the eggs are protected the adder can live and breed in northern climates which have only a short summer season. Mating takes place in May or June. Then an average of ten young are ‘born’ to each female in midsummer. For centuries people mistakenly thought the adder ate her young in time of danger – which added to the animal’s bad press. This myth probably arose because living young had been found inside the bodies of recently killed female adders.
So what about the danger? The truth is there isn’t much. Only 14 people died of adder bite in Britain during the entire 20th century which means you’re about as likely to die a Cleopatra-esque death as you are to be hit by a meteorite. No adder goes looking for human beings to bite and it will attack only if you’re silly enough to pick it up or provoke it. There have been cases of people being bitten after accidentally stepping or sitting on an adder while out in the countryside, and of course if this happens it will hurt a lot and the victim must be taken to hospital for treatment immediately. Children, the elderly and the already sick are more likely to be dangerously affected by the venom, which works on the nervous system, rather than adults in reasonable health.
Actually, the mechanism of the bite is interesting. Two hollow fangs are fixed to a pair of rotating jaw bones and levered instantly into position as the animal strikes. Muscular contraction squeezes the poison along ducts into the fangs. It all goes into the victim or enemy as neatly as a jab at the doctor’s. Not a drop is wasted.
Fortunately I have no personal experience of this, although a teacher friend in Kent tells a chilling story of something that happened during a very hot summer a few year ago. . ‘An innocent little boy in my class brought me a live adder in the brown paper bag he’d brought his packed lunch to school in,‘ she recalls. He’d found the snake on the edge of the school site in the long grass during the dinner hour. So he picked it up, popped it in the paper bag and brought it into school to show me. It was a miracle that neither he nor I were stung.’ After that all the children in all the schools in the borough were warned that, although this is a every interesting creature, on no account must it be touched. Just fetch your teacher and show him or her where you saw the animal, they were told.
Interfering with adders is obviously foolish. It’s also illegal. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 gave legal protection to a wide range of animals and plants. Under Section 9 and Schedule 5 of the Act it is against the law to kill, injure, take, possess or sell an adder. Neither may you damage or destroy its place of shelter or protection.
So enjoy ‘your’ adder if you’re lucky enough to spot one, but treat it with respect. ‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,’ Shakespeare makes Brutus say in Julius Caesar. Absolutely.