Snakes and Adders
by Marcus van Dam
Adders on the Moors? We saw one on a warm day while walking across the Moors near Lockwood Beck.
A sizeable snake, about 50 cm long but very thin, slithered across the path. That surely was an adder, also called viper (vipera berus). There are quite a few on the moors and in the woods of North Yorkshire.
Specifically, adders prefer open spaces with young trees, for example areas that have recently been replanted. The trees offer a hiding place from birds of prey, and there they can find their own prey such as mice, frogs or voles. Spring is the time adders come out of hibernation, and spring and summer are the seasons they are most likely to be met by walkers. They are black/grey in zig zag lines and can be two feet long. Over the summer there will be much mating and breeding going on, leading to the birth of worm-sized mini-adders, but interestingly no laying of eggs. During autumn they make their way back to their usual hibernation site, to have a big snooze until next spring, and so they can live for up to 20 years. Severe winters are probably the biggest threat to them, as the law protects them from being killed or injured by people.
Adders are the only venomous snakes that might trouble us in the UK. Although they have a highly developed venom injection system to catch their prey, they are not aggressive towards people. When it comes to walkers and anything else bigger than them, adders sense their movement and prefer to get out of the way into the undergrowth, which is why snake bites, although reported, are actually very rare in the UK. They mostly happened to people who were handling them, as even accidentally stepping on one is most unlikely. To reduce the risk of being bitten further, wear walking boots and long trousers, and don’t stick your hands into holes in the ground.
When you see an adder, stand completely still until it has moved out of the way, as adders only go for moving targets.
An adder bite feels like a wasp sting. It is painful but not life threatening, and in fact no one has died from one in the last 25 years. To be exact, since 1876, 14 people died of snake bites, the last one in 1975. The bitten area will get a bit red and swollen, and the person may feel nauseous and dizzy.
It is clearly not recommended to attempt the heroic measures you might have seen in films, like sucking or cutting out the venom or tying off the affected limb…
Not only is it unnecessary and won’t reduce the venom absorbed, but it is likely to cause additional injury. Keep the body part still if possible (if it’s your leg and you need to walk back then you can do that of course). Remove rings if the hand was bitten (as fingers might swell up later on), and attend the nearest A&E department (not minor injuries unit).
Occasionally, people can have an allergic reaction, ranging from itch and nettle rash, to the uncommon cases of anaphylaxis which present with breathing difficulties and collapse. In the latter case an ambulance needs to be called (999). Due to low blood pressure people with anaphylaxis should lie down, and medical treatment involves adrenaline and antihistamines, which every ambulance will carry. Anti-venoms (snake poison antidotes) are not required for the treatment of anaphylaxis, but may be used only in hospital in the rare case of very severe poisoning.
published in Valley News, August 2011