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29 March 2023

What the adder means

The attention you bring to bear on the landscape as you look for Britain’s only venomous snake is transformative.

By Helen Macdonald

Lowland heaths are loud with electrical sounds: clicking pine cones, crackling gorse pods, singing grasshoppers, the flickering buzz of dragonflies. But in early spring they’re quiet places whose deep hush is broken only by birdsong. And this is when one of our shyest and most notorious creatures emerges from its underground winter refuge – an abandoned rabbit burrow, perhaps, or a dark space under the roots of a fallen tree. Its emergence changes the landscape, charging it with caution for anyone who walks there.

I’ve only ever seen one once. I came across it on a mossy bank on a Breckland woodland ride. Both of us were alarmed by our meeting. A few feet away, an unspooling chain of jet black and pale grey flowed through dead heather twigs. It had the geometry of ribcages and lines of morse code. I saw a flat, blunt head with a dark eye; a tongue flicking out to taste the air. But I remember, most of all, how it made me freeze in place, and how the bend and release of its sinuous form as it disappeared into scrub was exactly the tempo of my own astonished breaths. It was an adder, Britain’s only venomous snake.

Adders are widely distributed across Europe and Asia, right up to the Arctic Circle and south to the Mediterranean. In the UK they can be found on chalk grasslands, in meadows, dunes and woodland margins –sometimes they venture into gardens – but their stronghold is heathland, which teems with their favoured prey of voles, mice and lizards. Cold-blooded, like all reptiles, they need to warm themselves before searching for mates or hunting: sunny, south-facing slopes beside thick vegetation are good places to find them basking. If you’re lucky, you might even witness the “dance of the adders”, when rival males rear up and wrestle each other to defend their chosen mate.

[See also: The best children’s books for spring 2023]

These beautiful vipers aren’t easy to find. Except when mating or hibernating, they are solitary, secretive creatures, and they are becoming ever rarer. Human disturbance, habitat fragmentation and degradation have taken their toll on adder populations. And while they’re protected by law, they’re still persecuted. Their venom is rarely fatal, but its effects can be agonising. Each year around 50 people get bitten in the UK, usually through disturbing or treading on adders, or after foolhardy souls attempt to pick them up. Bites like these are defensive, not aggressive. Adders prefer to slip away into deep cover than engage in confrontation.

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When we were young, my brother James and I often searched for these snakes, lured by their beauty and danger. We never found them. Later, I shifted my natural-historical attention almost entirely to birds. But James still travels to lowland heaths three or four times a year specifically to see and photograph them. “They’re lovely things,” he says. “So delicate, and always smaller than you think they’re going to be.”

Looking for adders is a spring ritual for him, and it’s far more than simply a walk in the country. “The experience might be about the snake, but it’s not the snake,” he says. Yes, other dangerous creatures live in Britain – it’s politic to avoid wild boar or rutting red stags – but the quality of cautious attention you bring to bear on the landscape as you look for adders is transformative.

First, you need to pay close heed to your own physical impact on the world. As you walk down firebreaks and paths, you must tread softly. Literally. Adders feel vibrations with sharp clarity through their skin and bones, and a too-heavy footfall will make them slip away unnoticed.

Second, you must keep your head down, and focus on everything. Adders are exquisitely camouflaged and finding them is an exercise in pattern recognition. “It’s tough,” James says. “They look like heather twigs and their habitat is full of heather twigs.” You have to learn the intricate details of the ground before you can recognise what an adder looks like in it. Only after your vision tunes in to the environment do the snakes stand out against its background clutter.

Most of all, adder-hunting can spur wider meditations on self and place. Searching for them, you share the landscape with others; people walking their dogs or jogging. On any other day, you might be one of those people, a reminder that the complexities of the natural world surround us all the time, but that most often, caught up in our quotidian concerns, we pay them little attention.

But at heart it’s that adders are venomous that makes this activity so different from watching birds or mammals or butterflies. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that our fascination with venomous snakes is a visceral, ancient, adaptive response to danger. Searching for adders screws your senses to the utmost, fills you with caution, forces you to treat the snakes and the landscape they live in with considerable respect. Adders break the familiar way we observe nature in Britain: we tend to watch birds and foxes, for example, like we’re viewing them on a screen. Adders push back. You can’t walk in the deep cover where they live in case you get bitten; you can’t touch them at all. You look at the adder, and the adder looks back. The gulf between you both crackles with the impossibility of contact, and an awareness of your own vulnerability.

Perhaps this is why adders seem to me creatures of spring. As I get older, the profusion of new green growth, flowers and just-fledged birds of April and May becomes ever more poignant and bittersweet, a seasonal intimation of how short our lives are. Encountering an adder on a sunny bank focuses and sharpens this existential intuition, reminding us of our humanity, our transience, our beautiful, mortal frailty.

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special