Snakes On A Plain

August 25, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s silly season in the news and as always at this time of year tabloids and social media are awash with scare stories of adder ‘invasions’ and ‘attacks’ on dogs. More often than not these are full of misinformation and accompanied by panicked comments from worried owners and calls for snakes to be removed from particular areas or even killed. 

So what’s the truth about this elusive species and how can we keep our dogs safe whilst enjoying summer walks?

The adder Vipera berus is the UK’s only venomous snake. Adults can grow up to 60cm in length. Colour is variable including grey, brown and sometimes black but adders are easily identified by the distinctive dark ‘zig-zag’ pattern along the back, which is both unmistakable and extremely effective camouflage.

The species is considered to be at risk of extinction in the next 15-20 years, having declined significantly over the last few decades due to public pressure/disturbance and loss or poor management of their habitat (Gardner et al, 20191).

They occur most frequently in heaths, moors and coastal areas but also in dry, lowland habitats such as rough grassland (especially with dense scrub or bracken), clearings, rides and tracks in woodland, felled plantation, disused quarries and embankments along roads and railways.

Like all reptiles, adders are ectothermic, meaning that they are unable to generate body heat internally and rely on external warmth to raise their body temperature. Dry areas to bask undisturbed in the sun next to dense cover (such as bracken or scrub) are a key habitat requirement for adder and this influences when and where they are likely to be found.

Typical adder basking spot

Adder bites can be serious or even fatal to humans and dogs in a small number of cases but are easily treatable if dealt with quickly. Adders are shy and secretive creatures and will not bite unless threatened or antagonised, preferring to quietly move away if they can. Bites are actually extremely rare with between 50-100 cases of bites to humans2 and 100 reported cases of bites to dogs annually and only ten recorded deaths in the last century3.

However, if your dog loves to explore the undergrowth they may inadvertently disturb adders in suitable habitat between March and October. So what can you do to keep your best friend safe and prevent disturbance to this threatened and misunderstood reptile?

How to stay safe

  1. Avoid! Keep to paths in adder habitat, especially between March and October; Be aware of your environment and surroundings.
  2. Manage! Keep your dog on a lead and when off the lead discourage them from exploring sunny, sheltered areas with long vegetation where adders may be basking.
  3. Train! Play games to boost your recall and proximity value so your dog is less likely to go off exploring where they may encounter an adder.
  4. Educate! Share this post and encourage other people to read the facts on adders rather than spreading misinformation by tapping the share buttons on the left!

If your dog is very unlucky and does get bitten, follow the advice here and get them to a vet as soon as possible.

More information on adders and our other native reptile species can be found on the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust website: https://www.arc-trust.org/

1 https://www.thebhs.org/publications/the-herpetological-journal/volume-29-number-1-january-2019/1886-06-i-make-the-adder-count-i-population-trends-from-a-citizen-science-survey-of-uk-adders/file

2 http://www.npis.org/NPISAnnualReport2017-18.pdf

3 https://www.arc-trust.org/facts-and-advice-on-adder-bites

Guest post by the talented Caroline O’Rourke, a gifted Ecologist and a star member of our Genius Class

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