The day I sunbathed with an adder

Ben DolphinI think it’s safe to say I’m more interested in nature now than I was 15 years ago. That’s when the outdoors went from being my hobby to being my passion. But even before then I had a passing interest in nature, and tended to notice the obvious wildlife on my walks.

That interest has since grown exponentially, such that I now also notice the smaller and better camouflaged creatures around me. And yet, in all my years of hillwalking, biking, camping, of being out & about in Scotland’s wild places, there’s one small and camouflaged creature in particular that remains stubbornly elusive.

The adder.

Only my 2nd adder in 12 years, at Loch Ordie in Perthshire

Only my 2nd adder in 12 years, at Loch Ordie in Perthshire

Until recently, the only live snake I’d ever seen in Scotland was a fleeting glimpse along the Allt Connie, near Inverey in 2003. I’d chosen a quiet pathless route up to Carn Bhac and decided to walk straight through a shieling, over its low walls. Inside the structure, on a large stone, was a dark grey adder.

Excitedly, I fumbled for my camera but in the space of a few seconds it had slithered off, hissing, and was gone. That was one of the very first hillwalks I did in Scotland and, at the time, I think I honestly believed that every subsequent walk up a Cairngorm glen would yield adders. It didn’t. And nor did any other subsequent walks or glens elsewhere in Scotland over the next 11 years!

In fact I didn’t see anything else remotely snake-like until last year in Glen Tromie. A poor adder squished dead on the road. A sad sight, yes, and naturally I’d rather have seen a live one, but a dead one was still interesting.

Almost a year later, just a couple of weeks ago in fact, I found myself biking in Perthshire, exploring the sublime countryside around Lochan Oisinneach Mor and Loch Ordie near Dunkeld. It was late afternoon, warm, sunny, and with no wind. The kind of idyllic spring day that you can’t help smiling at. I wasn’t hurtling down the track but the ground was none the less speeding past. Blurry objects whizzed past.




More pebbles….

A snake….



I screeched to a halt so violently that my sunglasses fell off my head, tumbled into a ditch and sent one of the lenses flying. I walked back up the hill and there, sat right in the middle of the road all coiled up, was an adder. I was thrilled!

It’s an easy identification to make as it’s Scotland’s only snake. There are two other species in Britain, the grass snake and the smooth snake, but they’re both found south of the border. That said, recent survey data suggests that the (harmless) grass snake may be moving north into Dumfries & Galloway as our climate gets milder.

The only other creature you’re likely to confuse with adders in Scotland is the slow worm. It’s not a worm, but neither is it a snake. It’s actually a smooth, shiny, legless (and harmless) lizard that has a thing for compost heaps.

Adders, however, are easily identified by the distinctive zig-zaggy pattern along their backs from head to tail, and they have obvious large scales.

The adder’s scales are clearly visible. The colours & patterns work as camouflage.

The adder’s scales are clearly visible. The colours & patterns work as camouflage.

Males TEND to be cream or grey, with a black zig zag, whereas the females tend to be brown or red, with a brown zig zag. And just to complicate matters, adders can also be jet black!

People perhaps expect adders to be bigger than they are because of their notoriety as Britain’s only venomous snake. But in reality they average a little over half a metre in length, with the longer specimens only reaching up to 80cm. So they’re certainly no pythons.

I couldn’t tell how long this adder was, but coiled up it only covered the same area of ground as a beer mat. Size is no true indication of danger, however, and with that in mind I lay down on the verge at the side of the road, keeping a safe distance and being careful not to let my shadow fall on it. From there, using my camera’s telephoto lens, I was free to study the adder at its own eye level without alarming it.

It didn’t move as I lay there. It was utterly still.

It was a beautiful creamy golden colour and had stunning red eyes with a vertical slit for a pupil. That admittedly makes them look rather less cuddly than other reptiles, and a bit intimidating despite their modest size. But snakes aren’t one of my fears so I was content to lie there in the sun, staring at it.

It stared back.

Apart from those hypnotic red eyes it showed no signs of life. No movements, no breathing. Nothing. It may as well have been a statue.

And there we both sat for 15 minutes or so, sharing that stretch of dusty track, enjoying the warmth of the spring sunshine. After a while I got cramp in my leg and had to change my position, so I stood up and walked about. Its tiny head suddenly shifted in my direction.

At that moment two cyclists approached from uphill. I waved to slow them down and said there was an adder in the road. The two ladies shuffled past, clearly intrigued but keeping a healthy distance. One took a photo on her phone. The other remarked that she’d not seen an adder up in these parts for 30 years! Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so short-changed that this was only my second live adder in 12 years. I felt immensely privileged to be sat sunbathing with this enigmatic creature.

As the cyclists moved past, the snake decided it was time to go. It uncoiled and slithered off, revealing its stunning colours. It was perhaps only 50cm long, small for an adder, perhaps a youngster.

A male adder approx. 50cm long. Colour varies from individual to individual but they all have the distinctive zig zag on their backs.

A male adder approx. 50cm long. Colour varies from individual to individual but they all have the distinctive zig zag on their backs.

Still keeping my distance, I watched as it moved into the grass and towards cover. I admit I had childlike excitement upon seeing that it did actually ‘snake’ its way effortlessly though the grass with no obvious means of motorisation. And I got even more excited when, as it explored the way ahead, it occasionally sent its forked tongue darting out to ‘smell’ the air.

And then it was into a big tussock of grass and out of sight. My adder encounter had ended. I packed my camera away, searched for my sunglasses and pedalled back to Dunkeld in a somewhat euphoric mood.

Later, I tweeted a photo of ‘my second adder in 12 years!’, but the response I got was unexpected. Everyone else was seeing them everywhere, and not just one snake at a time. Some people were reporting multiple sightings!

I admit I was taken aback. Were adders really so easy to see? Had I been walking around with my eyes closed? Or had I just been walking in the wrong places?

I decided to conduct my own completely unscientific survey to find out, and started quizzing outdoorsy people on Twitter and Facebook to see where they had seen adders in Scotland. The response was terrific. Around 150 sightings came in, and I put them all on a rough map. It was by no means comprehensive but it gave a nice overview of where folk in Scotland are encountering adders.

Results from my completely unscientific survey of adder sightings across Scotland.

Results from my completely unscientific survey of adder sightings across Scotland.

Arran (especially Glen Rosa) and Jura seemed to be notable hotspots among Walkhighlands followers, as were the areas around Linn of Dee and Braemar, plus the Galloway coast. They’re popular places for walks, of course, but all in all it seemed there were few areas of Scotland where adders weren’t being seen.

There were notable exceptions though. Adders aren’t found in the Outer Hebrides or the Northern Isles, and they are sadly absent from much of the Central Lowlands. They would have been found across the lowlands at some point of course, but a combination of human persecution and habitat destruction/fragmentation has taken its toll.

But to be honest, despite their widespread distribution and the fact that anyone and everyone is practically falling over adders, the fact that I’ve only seen two in my lifetime still isn’t surprising. In the course of my completely unscientific survey it was clear that while many people had seen adders all over Scotland, a great many had NEVER seen an adder at all, despite being in the outdoors regularly.

This is because adders are shy, retiring, superbly camouflaged, and they’re not looking for a confrontation with Johnny Human. They will slither off if they see you coming or they feel the vibrations of you approaching. They also hibernate from November to March, so aren’t a year-round sight.

This is a good time of year (May) to see them, though, as they’ve recently awoken from hibernation. As cold blooded animals they need the sun to get them moving again, so the best chance of seeing them is when they are basking in the sunshine on rocks or open ground, to warm up in the morning or on cool days.

Respect them rather than fear them

It’s difficult to strike a balance when writing about creatures like this. You don’t want to unduly alarm people by exaggerating the risks, but at the same time you’d be remiss if you didn’t mention them at all.

So yep, there’s no getting away from the fact that adders are venomous. Injected through their retractable fangs, they use their venom to paralyse small prey like mice, frogs, chicks etc. But they also use it for defence.

Adder bites do happen in Scotland, but in nearly all cases this is either because people inadvertently tread on them or they try to pick them up. The snake’s instinctive reaction in both situations is to defend itself, and it can lunge a fair distance if it feels its life is in danger. Around half its body length by all accounts.

‘Smelling’ the air with its tongue.

‘Smelling’ the air with its tongue.

As a wildlife nut I can understand the desire to pick wildlife up and interact with it. I do so myself when I encounter amphibians and insects, but pleeeeease don’t do that with an adder. They may be small but they can give a painful bite. They don’t like to waste venom if they can help it, which is why NHS information suggests that 70% of adder bites that result in only pain and swelling of the bite area, are ‘dry’, ie without venom.

If venom is released then symptoms may extend beyond the bite area to things like dizziness and nausea, though these should be temporary. Unfortunately, as with bees and wasps, a minority of people will have a severe allergic reaction regardless of the type of bite, and are at risk of anaphylactic shock. That, of course, requires immediate medical attention.

But still the chance of being bitten is extremely small. During my completely unscientific survey I also asked if anyone had been bitten by an adder in Scotland. Of the 150 or so encounters, which are themselves rare events overall (remember my two adders in 12 years), there were five bites.

A couple of those did require hospitalisation, but with swift medical help they ‘d mostly recovered after a few days. The truth is, it’s been a very long time since anyone died from an adder bite in the UK. 40 years, in fact. None the less, if you’re bitten you should seek medical assistance immediately just to be on the safe side.

So yes, keep a safe distance, but don’t fear adders or act aggressively towards them. They aren’t lurking in the undergrowth, maliciously manoeuvring themselves with serpentile guile into your path just so that they can have an excuse to bite you. They want to avoid contact with you at all costs. And 9 times out of 10 they’ll not even be seen. Frankly, cows in fields or a common wasp are likely to be more of a danger on your walk.

As with any of our wildlife, a benign encounter can enhance your day and be a wonderfully uplifting experience. Mine certainly was. I pedalled away from it with a beaming smile on my face and a memory I’ll treasure, of the day I went sunbathing with an adder.

Thanks ever so much to all the Walkhighlands followers who replied on Facebook and Twitter. You had some amazing photos and stories to tell.

Slow worm. SNH leaflet to help distinguish between adders and slow worms: http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/education/slowworm.pdf

Slow worm. SNH leaflet to help distinguish between adders and slow worms: http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/education/slowworm.pdf

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.