The subject of adders and their bites is one that comes up regularly each year, so I thought I’d jot down a bit of advice and have it ready for the next time.
First of all, let’s get the danger from adder bites into perspective. Many people are bitten by adders in the UK – often because they pick the snakes up – but the last time someone actually died as a result was in 1975. That’s 40 years ago. When you consider that every year several people are killed by dogs and several more by wasp or bee stings, the risk of death from an adder bite becomes very low in comparison.
Having said that, it’s a nasty experience you would definitely want to avoid. The amount and concentration of venom delivered can vary enormously, as can the reaction of people and other animals to a bite. I’ve heard of some being hardly affected, while others have ended up with severe tissue damage, a long hospital stay and permanent scarring.
Approach with care
Typical habitats for adders are heathlands, dune grasslands and other natural-looking grassy areas. If you’re walking in places like that, wear boots rather than flip-flops! Keep to the paths instead of treading through the vegetation and you will be much less likely to stand on an adder. If you really have to stray from the track, heavy footsteps will give the adders some warning of your approach and may help them escape. Path edges can be good places for adders to bask, but if you keep your eyes open you will be able to spot them and take evasive action.
As a reptile enthusiast I do the opposite – sneaking quietly through their habitat to find adders basking. The adder is an important part of our wildlife, greatly in need of help from conservationists, and recording its distribution is essential to any protection strategy. Time of day, season and weather conditions are important factors in deciding when to look for adders and, by the same token, in advising people who want to avoid an adder encounter.
Take the temperature
I am often asked to advise on when dogs can be safely walked in adder areas, so I will give some tips from that point of view. It’s sometimes said that early morning is safest for dog walks, but I think that’s probably the most dangerous of times – especially in summer.
The key thing to bear in mind is that an adder’s behaviour at any moment is strongly affected by its body temperature:
- A cold adder is unable to move much, so it will remain underground.
- A hot adder is fairly safe, as it will be fast and alert – which means it will be more likely to detect a dog or human approaching and will rapidly flee.
- A barely warm adder is the one most likely to be a problem. It will tend to go out into the open and bask, to warm up, but it will not be fast or alert. This is the adder you may accidentally stand on, or which your dog may find. Unable to make a quick exit, its only defensive option will be to bite.
People like myself who go looking for adders choose times when they are slow and dozy, as described above. To give a very rough guide to the relevant outdoor temperatures, we tend not to bother looking for UK reptiles if it’s much below 10⁰C or above 17⁰C – although this can never be taken as a precise rule as there are other factors involved.
Watch the weather
In deepest winter, or during heavy rainfall, adders are cold and you won’t see them. On a hot day they are very active, so again you are unlikely to see them. The time of day when the temperature is roughly between 10⁰C and 17⁰C varies throughout the year and depends on the weather.
In spring and autumn we might well be looking for reptiles between about 9 and 11 in the morning, and between 4 and 7 in the afternoon. So walking dogs before 9 am or after 7 pm is relatively safe at those times of year, unless the weather is unusually warm for the season – in which case you would have to go earlier in the morning or later in the evening.
In summer the adders wake up sooner, so you would have to get up very early in the morning to avoid their basking period. Similarly, the weather may remain quite warm well into the evening, so adders may still be basking to top up their body temperature as long as the sun is still visible. The safer option, in my opinion, is to walk dogs when it’s hot.
As I’ve said, there are other factors affecting the time and temperature at which reptiles bask, so giving advice on avoiding them becomes complicated. For example, overcast weather in which hazy sun filters through the clouds can be suitable for basking at any time of day. So can sunny periods between showers.
Generally speaking, if the sun is visible then basking to absorb some heat is a possibility. If there’s no sun, there’s no point in basking. If the sun is out but it’s still far too cold for the adder to start moving, it won’t bask yet. If the sun is out but it’s already very warm, the adder will have quickly soaked up the heat it needs and will have finished basking. The dangerous time for adder encounters is when it’s just warm enough for the adder to come out and bask – so steer clear of cool mornings with bright sun.
- Keep dogs on leads in adder habitat, particularly in conditions suitable for reptile basking.
- Try to walk when the outside temperature is well below 10⁰C or well above 17⁰C. In summer this will tend to mean the hot part of the day but in spring or autumn it could mean early morning or late evening.
- Be aware that the reptile hibernation period in Cornwall is short, so you may well find basking adders in October, November and March for instance.
If you or your dog are unlucky enough to be bitten, don’t panic but get to the hospital or the vet, respectively, as soon as possible. Try to avoid running, over-excitement or movement of the affected area, as it’s best to keep the heart rate low and slow down the spread of venom through the bloodstream. Children or dogs should ideally be carried.
I hope this will never happen to you and I wish you many happy hours of enjoying and appreciating the adder’s habitat.
Contact: Mark Nicholson Copywriting