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13 November 2014

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You are in: Gloucestershire > Nature > Nature Features > Snakes in Gloucestershire

Adder eye

Snakes in Gloucestershire

Cinderford's Rob Ward writes about the most feared, yet fascinating, creature in Britain and warns dog owners to take care when running dogs off the lead in areas where adders are known to be.

If there is one creature on the Planet that strikes terror and fear into people, it has to be the snake.

For thousands of years the snake has been persecuted, almost to extinction in some areas as a result of countries and communities not understanding them and of course loss of habitat.

Deforestation has played a big part in the demise of many wild creatures around the World, including the snake.

The adder is Britain's only venomous snake, but this does not make it a monster.

Let me share with you some facts and images of our snakes in Gloucestershire and hopefully you will see that they are not a thing of nightmares, but truly magnificent reptiles that deserve our respect and help.

Adder skin, taken by Rob Ward

Facts: Adders & Grass snakes

Scientific names: Adder – Vipera berus / Grass snake – Natrix natrix.
Hibernation: From October to February depending on the climate (both).
Mating: April, although females will never breed in two consecutive years (both).
Birth: August to early September (both).
Young: Adder, anything up to 10 (Live young) / Grass snake, 5 – 30 (eggs).
Size: Adder, around 16cm when born to 90cm fully grown / Grass snake, 18cm when hatched to 200cm fully grown.
Venom yield: 10 – 18 mg (low) (Adder only).
Life Span: Adder, up to 15 years / Grass snake, up to 25 years.

The adder and grass snake are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Schedule 5, from trade, injury and killing.

When a young adder is born, it comes complete with fangs and venom! The venom is used to kill its prey and also help with the digestion process, but young adders can't regulate the amount of venom they inject, so they have no choice but to inject their entire venom yield.

Over time they learn how to regulate their venom and preserve it for hunting.

If you stand next to an adult snake and it bites you, it may give a dry bite, this means that it has recognised you as a non food source and has given you a warning bite, but don't think for one moment that all bites on humans are dry.

From 1876 to 1975 there have been 14 fatalities in Britain as a result of adder bites, the last being a 5-year-old girl.

Female adder taken by Rob Ward

Identification: Adder (Vipera Berus)

The male adder is usually black and grey, but can sometimes be tinted yellow, where as the female is brown in colour.

Also the Rare black or melanistic adders are not uncommon in some areas of the Country.

Males grow to around 67cm and are a slim bodied snake, the female is a much bulkier snake and can grow as long as 90cm.

The adder has a zigzag pattern, which runs from head to tail and they have a V shape on the back of their head, they also have a bright red eye with a narrow black vertical pupil, except when it is about to shed its skin, its eye then turns bluish as fluid builds up between the outer layer and the new skin underneath.

This is a particularly dangerous time for the adder as its vision is impaired.

Large grass snake, taken by Rob Ward

Identification: Grass Snake (Natrix Natrix)

The grass snake does not have the zigzag pattern like the adder, instead they are greyish green with a yellow band around the back of their head, they also have dark scales dotted evenly around their body, from a distance and under water they look like rings, this is why they are sometimes called the ringed snake.

The grass snake grows larger than the adder and a specimen I found near Speech House in the Forest of Dean measured 120cm, if this snake is still alive today it could be over 4 foot long, but even this is small compared to some that can reach 200cm or more!

They lack venom and fangs, but do have small teeth and can draw blood if given the chance.

Just because they do not pose the tools to kill like the adder, it doesn't mean they cannot defend themselves.

When provoked or if all their exits are blocked the grass snake will feign death, lying on its back motionless, with its mouth gaping and its tongue hanging out.

If this fails to stop an attack it will secrete a foul smelling liquid from its anal gland, consisting of partly digested food and anal secretions.

Female adder basking, taken by Rob Ward

Where to find them

The first point I would like to make is that all snakes in Britain are shy, timid, endangered and protected. They rely on their cryptic patterns to camouflage themselves.

If you disturb a snake on a regular basis, the snake will eventually move away and this is detrimental to its survival, so please think of the snake.

Adders can be found around the edges of fields, the edges of woodland and sandy areas. They are particularly fond of heather as they can easily bask on top of it and are also protected from the wind.

Their cryptic patterns make them quite difficult to spot, but if you are patient and move slowly, you have a great chance of spotting one.

Grass snakes can be found around ponds, ditches and meadowland. Although the adder can swim it is more common to see grass snakes swimming in ponds, as they can stay submerged for around an hour.

Snakes are cold blooded, which means they require heat to boost their energy levels and to stay alive. They will follow the sun, so look where there are sunspots and you may catch a glimpse of one.

Adders are used to sheep and deer walking around so if you spot one and it slithers away, stay still and within 5–10 minutes it will re-appear to bask, but you have to be still or they will not come back out.

Something I do not recommend for the non-experienced snake watcher is to sit down. I once disturbed a snake on a tree line at the edge of a field. After about 5 minutes the snake re-appeared, he proceeded to make his way towards my foot.

As there was not a lot of room I was sat cross-legged and he came up and rested his chin on the side of my boot. If I had been wearing shorts at the time, my legs would have given the snake a heat signal and one wrong move would have resulted in a bite, luckily I had jeans on, so one quick movement with my hand and he jerked and slithered away.

If you want to watch snakes, but do not want to get up close and personal, I suggest a small pair of binoculars, they will enable you to observe the snakes without getting too close.

A relaxed adder, taken by Rob Ward

Symptoms of an adder bite and what to do if bitten

From previous experiences, if a snake bites you, you may not always see the culprit.

The easiest way to tell if it was an adder is to look at the area and see if there are two small puncture holes anything up to one inch apart.

It will not always bleed and my theory is that if venom is injected, your blood will coagulate, but if you are given a dry bite your blood will run, but this is not hard fact.

If you do see the culprit, don't panic and stay still as there may be more than one in the vicinity and by running away you may tread near or even on another one resulting in another bite and injury to the adder!

In either case you should seek medical advise immediately.

Some people suffer allergic reactions if bitten, so calmly make your way to your nearest hospital, better safe than sorry.

Symptoms consist of pain, nausea, tiredness, itching in the bite area and sometimes blood blisters. In extreme cases vomiting and uticaria (hives) can occur, this is your body's sign of an allergic reaction, so get to the hospital fast. 

Snakes mating, taken by Rob Ward

Adders and dogs

Adders and dogs are a bad mix, don't be worried every time your dog starts sniffing in the bushes, but be ready to act and recognise the symptoms.

If your dog gives out a yelp, check his nose and face for a bite. A bite can be hard to see as a dogs face is covered in hair.

Also check its legs and the area where the dog has come from, the snake may still be in the vicinity or it may have just been a harmless gorse bush.

If you do see a snake don't kill it, remember a snake will only strike as a form of self-defence and as a last resort.

If you suspect a snake's bite is responsible or you are not sure, take your dog to the nearest vet's immediately.

Sometimes dogs are bitten but do not react, if this happens your dog's first symptoms will be fatigue, shallow breath, whimpering and even bleeding from the nose and mouth in smaller dogs. 

Adder bites can be fatal in dogs, so be prepared to act fast.

last updated: 16/06/2009 at 09:14
created: 31/03/2008

Have Your Say

What have been your experiences of snakes in Gloucestershire or elsewhere in the UK?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Tim Liddeatt
I was looking for my golfball in the brambly rough at the side of the 10th at Clevedon on Monday (31stAugust) when I thought I had been caught on bramble thorns. I thought no more about it until I got down to the 11th and realised my shoe was covered in blood! My wife was putting Tea Tree oil on it when she saw the two punture wounds and said she thought it looked like a snake bite. We conferred with our playing partners and decided better to be safe than sorry. I ended up in Weston Hospital for five and a half hours being monitored every hour and having a shunt in my hand ready to act should I have a bad reaction. Luckily I have just got some localised swelling and bruising in my right calf. I had quite a few of the Doctors and nurses around to see me as none of them had seen an actual snake bite before. Looking at your article I think it may well have been a dry bite as there was a lot of blood. No one at our club has had an encounter with an adder before and have even more of an incentive to stay on the Fairway!!

Our black lab was bitten by an adder (although I didn't know at the time) on Walberswick Heath last July. He didn't react immediately but part way home kept lying down and getting him to move was difficult. Took an age to get him home and then to the vet. Vets can't give anti-venom unless they are totally sure it's an adder and any way, after checking, nowhere in Suffolk carries it. After treatment; short hospitalisation and being worryingly unwell, our lab made a full recovery in 2/3 days. He still has the strike mark on his muzzle.

Jackie Ward
Thanks for this information. It has convinced me that what we thought was a huge adder was in fact a grass snake. Ou dog disturbed it in the sand dunes at Horsey Gap on the Norfolk coast.

Hi I have a dog recovering from possible snake bite he is showing all the signs and symptons although we didnt see the snake or suspect this as being the cause for his instant pain. As the area he was bitten is not known for adders, we are in suffolk and 4 day's later another dog was bitten although in a diffrent town and they did see the adder.

Rob Ward
A labrador died as a result of an adder bite on Cleeve Common in May09. Please be aware that this is a dangerous time of the year to let your dogs run off lead in areas where adders are known to be, especially with the warm weather. 99% of the time, antivenom will not be on hand at your vet's, so if your dog is bitten it can be fatal.Please be aware!

I've just returned from my vet in Suffolk with my three year old Pointer. He found an adder out on a walk this afternoon and returned with it in his mouth. Given the amount of fresh blood on his mouth, we think he must have killed it. Fortunately, he didn't receive a bite himself which is just as well because my vet told me that they had checked and no referal centres in Suffolk currently stock the anti-venom.Please be careful when out on walks with dogs - I certainly will be in future.

Rob Ward
Sorry to hear about your dog Steve. You are right, Spring is when the adder is most active as they have just emerged from hibernation and are getting ready to breed (in April).

We went for a nice walk through Holkham (Norfolk) to the beach. Whilst our 2 year old German Shepherd was on a lead she probably did stray into the edge of the woodland. Two days later she had a very large swelling on her mouth. We immediately took her to the vets, and she had some steriods and antibiotics. One day later her mouth tissues had started to break down and there was blood all over the floor. It was only a matter of time before the venom of what was now realised was a snake bite had taken hold and she died later the following weekend after £3000 worth of vet treatment. Be careful, particulary in the Spring

I was clearing dense Ivy from under a mature Laurel hedge yesterday in Bournemouth when I felt what seemed like Bramble thorns going through my gardening gloves (not leather ones mind you!). Thought no more about it until I was woken at 2am today with a searing pain in the top part of my thumb of the hand that felt like it had caught in Bramble. On checking it I noticed two little punctures (no thorns!) about 1/4-1/2" apart at the join of my hand to thumb. My hand was slightly swollen, not too great though. I'm up together on my Tetanus so have just kept a check on things today. The pain subsided as the morning wore on particularly that I splinted my thumb to reduce movement. This afternoon the pain has gone but punctures still very visible.

Andre Thresher
i have an absolute fear to snakes although i would not harm one i came into contact tosay with one it certanly got my heart thumping

Georgina Age 10
In North Devon,me and my parents saw two Adders on the rocks.There was also a cross Grey-Wagtail.It was an amazing experience.The female was much bigger than the Male,belive it or not.

Patrick O'Rielly (Cork)
There are no snakes in Ireland so they say. It's not true of course as they are in every reptile house I've ever been in. There are some real plonkers about, tuh!

R. Weasley
My friend Harry can talk to these reptiles using a special language called Parseltongue. What I want to know is can Johnny Morris also do this or was BBC's 'Animal Magic' just another way of fooling the kids in the 1970's? No wonder Punk Rock was born!

Jimmy Mason
Snakes can make very interesting pets. My mate had one and used to feed it on mice and things. His wife went berserk when he fed the snake her rabbit. The snake seemed to get a real buzz!

Kathy. Look at the photographs above, the adder has a zig-zag pattern where as the grass snake has dark scales dotted around its body. Grass snakes can be tinted green, but the adder also comes in different colours. See descriptions above. A grass snake will almost always vacate the area as soon as it is aware of your presence, but if you startle an adder it will sometimes stand its ground and will bite if you or your dogs get too close. When a snake is in the process of shedding its skin, its vision becomes impaired, this is when the snake will not see you coming and will go straight into defence mode. It sounds like an adder to me, the majority of snakes I see on paths are adders, grass snakes like grassy areas, so you were wise to take control of your dogs and move on. Better safe than sorry as an adder bite can sometimes be fatal in dogs!

Darrel Parkes
I had an encounter with a grass snake when tripping up Leckhampton Hill as a lad. It crawled up my trouser leg as I lay in the sun. It was a thrilling encounter to get so close to nature. I can assure you I was quite safe. In fact the snake was probably in more danger than I was.

we have 12 small dogs and were walking in the forest today and came across green and black fully patterned 12" snake sunbathing on the path, it wasn't happy to see us and hissed and raised it's head. We leaded up the dogs and went on our way. Is this an adder and would it bite or run? Many thanks from a newcomer to the forest.

Fancy saying that snakes can make shoes!?! They don't have opposable thumbs. Only humans and elves make shoes. Honestly, some people do talk cobblers (geddit, cobblers?)

Marcus Schemmel
Snakes are sly looking creatures and they remind me of my ex wife. However, they do make for a fancy pair of shoes imo

Guy W.
Snakes are wonderful creatures. I've had close encounters with some of Asia's most 'dangerous' snakes in the wild & felt quite safe. Basically we are not a snake's prey species & they have no interest in attacking us, although they do have the right & ability to defend themselves if their space is invaded. Good pics & feature, thanks.

Duke Theedam
I grew up in Cornwall. As a lad, my then friend and I regularly collected,kept a while, and studied Adders, Slo Worms, and Lizards, to study and sketch...before releasing them a few days later...utterly fascinating. (well we thought so) he is now a leading Botanist...I however, though still finding all Reptiles and Amphibians totally absorbing, have pursued a different career. Nice piece/good article.

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