Shy reptile laps up late summer sun

Once a sneaky snake, the adder is now a protected species
Once a sneaky snake, the adder is now a protected species

Written by Heather Elvidge

While we lap up any late summer sun, Britain’s only venomous snake will also be enjoying a spot of sunbathing. Adders like to bask on a warm stone or footpath.

In August and September female adders give birth. Unlike most snakes they don’t lay eggs, but bear live young the size of an earthworm. How many will survive is dependent on 
the weather during the winter.

Adders favour rough country, especially on the edge of woodland. A fully-grown adder is around two feet long, with a dark zig-zag-diamond pattern along its back. Males are pale grey and females pale brown, though just to confuse things there are a few black adders. They hunt small rodents, frogs, newts, and the chicks of ground-nesting birds.

Today the adder is a protected species, and a glimpse of one is cause for delight. However, things were very different even in the 19th century. Hagworms, as they were called, were agents of doom to be killed on sight. If one came to your door, it meant a death in the house. Bad luck would come from failing to kill a hagworm; on the other hand if you did, its mate would come looking for you.

Adders were believed to be afraid of ash wood, making an ash staff essential when out walking. In spring the shed skins of adders were kept to draw out splinters, or sewn inside a hat to keep headaches away. Expectant mothers in Cornwall would stitch a shed skin to flannel, and wear it as a belt.

Because snakes were thought to be deaf, adder oil became a prized remedy for deafness or earache. We still call a peddler of dodgy products or ideas a snake-oil salesman, especially if he’s slick with it.

Should we be worried about meeting our only venomous snake? Fortunately these shy creatures try to avoid people. They certainly won’t spring up and attack you, but they will bite if trodden on. If this happens it’s best to seek medical attention. But don’t panic — adder venom is fairly harmless to humans, although you may feel sick and drowsy.

However, pet dogs do die from adder bites, so it’s best not to let them run free in adder territory. And remember, most people who’ve been bitten by an adder were trying to handle it, so if you see one, just leave it alone.

Weather watch

At the end of August the mornings begin with a fresh, autumnal feel. But the sun is still hot, and capable of giving us a day that’s as summery as we could wish.

If the month should end on a dry, sunny note then September could be very pleasant. St Giles’ Day on the first offers an optimistic view: “Fair on September 1st, fair for the month”. While this is going a bit far, the Met Office says that September 1 to 17 is generally a “quiet period”. If you have a particular need for a fine day, then September 15 is your best bet. Records show that it’s fine in six years out of seven.