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.
Facts: Adders & Grass snakes
Scientific names: Adder – Vipera berus / Grass snake – Natrix natrix.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Have Your Say
What have been your experiences of snakes in Gloucestershire or elsewhere in the UK?
Georgina Age 10
Patrick O'Rielly (Cork)