The European Adder, or Common Viper, is one of Britain’s three native snakes and our only venomous reptile and we are fortunate to have a population living on Litcham Common.
What do adders look like?
Male adders usually have silvery-grey colouration, while females can be copper or brown. Both have a distinctive, black zig-zag pattern along their backs. Fully black adders can be seen in some areas too. Once fully grown, adders usually measure between 60 and 80cm in length. Young are almost perfect replicas of adults and measure around 17cm in length at birth.
Adders hibernate through the coldest part of the year. From around October to March they sleep in sheltered, dry spots such as old rodent burrows or within fallen trees. A few years ago a member of our conservation group got more than she bargained for when pulling up a bramble by the roots to find a sleeping adder underneath, which was swiftly covered over again to resume its slumber.
The males come out of brumation (a type of hibernation for cold-blooded animals) first, with the females being spotted within the following 2 to 5 weeks.
After a couple of weeks of the males emerging, they shed their skin. Next on their mind is to mate. Once the females are “awake” they leave a scent from a gland at the base of their tail. The males will smell this, and follow it to find the female. They then writhe their body over the female, flicking their tongue in and out in a courtship ritual before settling down to copulate.
Dance of the adders
If a second male comes across the female then the first will stop the courtship to defend his possible mate. What follows is a beautiful and elegant display which is known as the “Dance of the Adders”.
The “dance” usually only involves two snakes, but can number many more. It is a test of strength and stamina with each male trying to force the other to the ground. They can raise the first half of their body up off the ground before trying to push the other male down to the ground. The males will completely intertwine their bodies together while trying to force each other out, and often show very staggered and jerky movements. This ritual can last for several minutes and often happens on many occasions over many days. During the “dance” they never try to bite each other, but just keep competing with strength until one of them gives in and slinks off quickly into cover.
Unlike some snakes, adders do not lay eggs and instead give birth to up to 20 live young in late summer. The species has been known to live for more than ten years, although it can sometimes fall victim to other predators, such as birds of prey, crows and even pheasants, especially when young.
What do adders eat?
Adders feed primarily on small mammals, such as voles and mice, and lizards. They will also eat frogs, newts and small birds and their chicks. They are active during the day.
Unlike grass snakes which constrict their prey, adders use their venomous bite to subdue their meals.
Where do adders live?
Adders are found across Britain but are absent from Ireland. They are associated with open habitats such as heathland, moorland and woodland edges.
The adder is the most northerly-occurring snake species in the world and has been recorded within the Arctic Circle.
Sightings of adders
We are keen to build up a picture of the population size and location on the common and would be grateful to receive reports of any adder sightings, including the date, location and a description of the snake (for example its size and colour). Please report sightings to Tim Angell who can be contacted on 01328 700045.
Signs and spotting tips
Your best chance of seeing an adder is in spring, when they are emerging from hibernation and spend the early part of the day basking in sunlight. They are sensitive to vibration and quick to slip away when they feel footsteps approaching.
Aware of the Adder’s love of sunshine, and the need to tread carefully, Shakespeare wrote: “It is the bright day that brings forth the Adder, and that craves wary walking” [Julius Ceasar, Act II, Scene 1]
In fact these snakes are shy creatures that will naturally retreat from humans. It is rare for adders to bite people, but this can happen if humans try to handle them or accidentally step on them. To quote Spike Milligan:
“There’s nothing madder than a trodden on Adder!
“What to do if bitten by an adder
Adder bites are rarely fatal, but can be very painful. NHS guidelines suggest that medical treatment should be sought immediately. In the meantime you are advised to:
- remain calm and don’t panic;
- try to remember the shape, size and colour of the snake;
- keep the part of your body that’s been bitten as still as possible to prevent the venom spreading around your body;
- remove jewellery and watches from the bitten limb as they could cut into your skin if the limb swells;
- do not attempt to remove any clothing, but loosen clothing if possible.
Slightly more commonly, dogs will be bitten, often on the nose, due to their natural curiosity. Guidance is to seek immediate advice from a vet and in the meantime keep the animals calm and as still as possible, carrying the dog if it is small enough. Again, bites are rarely fatal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of dubious beliefs relate to what you should do if bitten by an adder. The Anglo-Saxons apparently believed that in order to overcome the effects of an adder bite all one had to do was say the word “faul”, which is translated as “evil spirit”. Given that hardly anyone ever dies from a bite they probably thought it worked quite well! In medieval times gypsies would kill the snake and either rub the whole snake on the bite or fry the animal’s fat and spread that on the wound. This ‘cure’ is documented in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Return of the Native’ written in 1878. These cures will not work – and any attempts to grab the offending snake would quite probably result in more bites.
One misconception that continues today is when people see a snake flicking its tongue and wrongly identify that as its ‘sting’. Instead, adders have hinged fangs through which venom is injected into prey. And NHS advice is very definitely that, if bitten, you should not try to suck or cut out the venom.
Old natural history books often tell how female adders swallow their young to protect them from danger. This story suggests a degree of parental care which is sadly lacking. If the mother did attempt to swallow her own young the strong stomach acids would digest them.
Many people think that snakes are deaf and while this is technically incorrect, as they don’t have ears, this belief does have an element of truth to it. Snakes have no visible ear, so they don’t hear sounds as we do. They have vestiges of the apparatus for hearing inside their heads, and that setup is attached to their jaw bones, so they feel vibrations very well and may hear low-frequency airborne sounds. (Or as Shakespeare incorrectly put it: “Art thou, like the Adder, waxen deaf?” [Henry VI Part 2; Act III, Scene 2]).
Finally, I can’t resist finishing with a famous potion recipe from Shakespeare (please don’t try this at home, it won’t work):
“Eye of newt and toe of frog. Wool of bat and tongue of dog. Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting. Lizards leg and owlets wing.” [Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1]Threats and conservation
The UK’s adder population is in decline. Habitat loss is thought to be the leading factor in this worrying trend, with both intensive agriculture and increases in woodland cover destroying suitable habitat and causing adder populations to become fragmented and isolated. The species is fully protected by law.