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British Snakes - The Adder  

The Adder (Vipera berus) is Britain’s only poisonous snake but will very rarely attack. Their usual approach is to use its exceptional camouflage to avoid being spotted or to disappear into the bushes and undergrowth at speed if they feel the vibrations of a threat approaching. While the adder is thought to have claimed the lives of around 10 people within the last 100 years or so, modern knowledge about snake bites and good access to medical care have greatly reduced the threat they pose to life. Only those that are susceptible to anaphylactic shock are a major risk.

The venom is actually quite strong but the adder does not inject much at any one time so there is less risk than from other venomous snakes that will strike repeatedly or inject more in one go.

Adders can be found all over mainland UK, but not Ireland, and are Scotland’s only native snake, demonstrating that they are the most capable snake in the world at surviving harsh conditions. The snakes do this by hibernating between October and Spring, coming out into the open at different times each year depending on the weather conditions.

Adders can be found in a very wide range of habitats but open ground such as moors and grasslands are a favourite as they are often full of their prey. This liking for open ground is often where they come into contact with humans out walking or working the land. if you go looking for them in the right areas at the right time of day then the adder is not an impossible creature to find, especially when combined with good local knowledge, stealth and patience. Early Spring is a good time to see them if the weather is warm as the males will be out looking for a mate and can often be seen basking in the sunshine on a rock.

Adders grow to around 90cm but are generally smaller, especially where the climate is colder. They have a grey/brown body with a very distinctive black zigzag pattern on their back. Occasionally the snakes can be completely black. Females are generally lighter in colour with a dark brown zigzag although it can be difficult to tell the difference.

The female will give birth to between 5 and 20 live young which are around 15cm long at birth. These snakes are immediately left to fend for themselves and go into hibernation quite soon after birth, often not eating until into their second year.

Adder in the grass
Many thanks to Phil Jones for the photo.

Adders are not fussy eaters, usually preying on small mammals such as mice and voles. They will also eat eggs, birds, frogs and other occasional unlucky animals. This ability to pick and choose food from a variety of sources is the key to their survival. As with many snakes the adder can go for long periods without eating, especially if in hibernation mode when their whole metabolism slows down.

The adder is not under threat in the UK but has been driven from many areas but human expansion leading to loss or pollution in their habitats. Luckily the threat from humans killing adders because of folklore about their lethal tendencies has died down thanks to better awareness of the insignificant threat they pose.

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