My Ma and Pa found a box of old school memorabilia as they cleared the loft before moving house. Among the old books was one of mine, and the opening (circa 1980) seemed rather apt. It was a theme repeated throughout the pages.
I don’t recall having such a strong connection with the adder, but imagine it was instilled largely through fear.
I didn’t actually see one until I was a couple of years older, and that was a fleeting glimpse. A flash of zig-zag vanishing into the gorse.
I had a better view when I was ten and running down a pathway on Dartmoor. The world went into slow motion as I glanced down and saw my falling foot heading straight onto an adder that was stretched across the path. I managed to alter my gait in a split second and thrust myself forward, tumbling as I did, but successfully avoiding contact.
In an instant my fear became overwhelmed by curiosity. I found a stick and poked around at the heather into which the adder had slipped. I was careful – I had no wish to hurt the animal – I just wanted a better look.
I didn’t see it again.
A few decades on and I have been fortunate enough to move to a cottage with a colony of adders (almost) on my doorstep. I have spent hours and hours creeping and watching, and have seen them in every month of the year. I have also got to know some as individuals, and the difference in behaviour between different snakes is extraordinary.
One female I see regularly (but have yet to find this year) is tolerant to the point of complacency. If I am careful, I can sit beside her and even stroke her and she barely flickers. She tastes the air and provided I am calm, she seems content with my presence. I believe she might be sensitive to adrenaline, for if I were hunting her or wary of being hunted, then I would be leaking the chemical.
By breathing slowly and through my nose, I remain a benign presence, offering a similar lack of threat to the deer or cattle that she must encounter regularly. If she feels safe, then why waste precious energy by moving?
One particular male is more flightly but also incredibly reliable. He seems to love being in the open air and once I have found his winter spot (adders will remain within a tail flick of hibernacula until well into spring) I know I will find him there in all but the poorest of weather.
The earliest I found him was on 28th January, and I saw him in the same spot at least half a dozen times before he headed off to slough, mate and feed. Only on one occasion, in heavy rain, was he not present, but I did see him on a day of prolonged damp and drizzle when the air temperature didn’t push above 4 degrees celsius.
He was one of four adders that I found on my recent, late March visit, and remained unmoved (but aware) as I took his photograph and then introduced him to a couple who were walking past as I admired him. They were delighted and excited to see him, and it made my day to share their enthusiasm.
Perhaps the best moment came after they left, however. In another spot I found a tiny coil of brown. One of last years young, safely through its first winter and unlikely, perhaps, to endure another so cold and snow-filled. Adders are hardy animals and are found further north than any other snake – right up towards the Arctic Circle, but the extremes of this winter will have caused a few casualties.
What they do need, however, is habitat. Dry soils, broken woodland and scrub. Unfortunately our tidiness and over management threaten the adder’s future. Colonies are becoming increasingly isolated and inbred.
I worry greatly for the future of the species across much of its range, but for now, at least, can enjoy them close to home.