It rained this morning, but with a complete change of heart the clouds went from grumbling, drizzling masses to shining-white benevolent cotton-balls by midday. Being late March the sun now has some proper strength to it and as it shines down through the spaces between clouds it warms the sodden earth and awakens those that dwell within it. Standing on the small heath surrounded by dark purple-brown Heather and patches of golden Gorse in bloom, I stare at the base of a large stand of gorse where; in a hidden sun-trap hollow with walls of heather, there bask two Adders entwined like lovers. They are not lovers however, both of them being nut-brown females, they merely warm up quicker when curled in the slythy coils of another of their kind. Their winter hibernaculum is further back in the gorse, they have almost certainly ventured out from it several times this year but so far the weather and temperature is too fickle, with a bite of winter still on the air, for them to leave it permanently.
I have seen Adders many times in my life, in various location and habitats (including a beach) and every time I marvel at their beauty and wildness. They are in many ways the template for the creature we all think of when we think of snakes; their eyes have slit pupils and a red-bronze iris (unlike the innocent looking wide-eyed grass snake), they flick their tongues and have sharp fangs through which they eject their venom. It is this venom that has been their downfall, despite being very timid creatures that are true diplomats in that they will always rather run than fight, and that their venom poses no fatal risk to an adult human (as well as the fact that 70% of bites inject no venom), they have been much maligned and consequently killed for simply existing.
It is their wildness that attracts me more than anything, unlike grass snakes they will not be found in your garden compost heap, they confine themselves to blasted heaths and secluded grassland, or exposed purple moorland. We dare not approach them and always give these snakes respectful privacy because of their venomous bite, this untouchability adds to their allure as well as their own desire for peace and human-shy nature. Their distinctive, camouflaged, beautiful and alarming skin adds to their wildness; one cannot help but think of dragon-like ‘Wyrms’ that were once presumed to haunt the darkest woods when you encounter an Adder. Perhaps it is their innate wildness that has kept them from ever being abundant in this country – for where in Britain today is truly wild?
They have a fascinating biology, being viviparous the female births live young rather than laying eggs, she will also fast for months while she is pregnant. Being cold-blooded has its advantages seeing as Adders need only eat the equivalent of nine voles in an entire year (outside of hibernation), without the need to produce their own body heat they do not require as much food as a mammal. Females are bigger than males and have a brown base-colour to their scales, males usually have a white or cream background, although very dark or entirely black individuals can be found. A fortunate Adder that manages to avoid being crushed by a car, eaten by birds or foxes or killed by humans or their dogs, may expect to live up to ten years. Male Adders will wrestle each other for mating rights in spring; this writhing, slow-paced dance is often wrongly thought to be a courting couple – in fact when Adders court, the male and female will move alongside each other with the male lashing his tail and caressing his head on her back. An advantage of the young being born pre-hatched is that they have a head-start in growth and also have an internal yolk each that will see them through the winter hibernation so that they do no need to hunt until the next year.
To see Adders, travel to a likely heath or mature woodland with plenty of ground flora on a warm spring or summer day – early morning when they will be basking to warm up for the day ahead is a good time. Watch out for log piles or mounds of vegetation that look like likely hibernaculums, keep an eye on quiet sunny spots and listen for rustling, if you are fortunate enough to see one remember to leave it well alone, keep still (they are deaf but can sense vibrations), keep downwind if possible and do not disturb it! Also never pick up or approach a dead Adder unless you are 100% sure it is dead (like if its body is split open or its head chewed off) because Adders do ‘play dead’ when feeling threatened.