WHAT do you immediately think when someone mentions the word adder?

I asked my kids this question and the answer was “it will bite you”. Many people will simply say “adder can kill you”. And for most people that is about the limit of their knowledge of the UK’s only venomous snake.

The reality is that you are more likely to get struck and killed by lightning than bitten and killed by an adder. Since 1876 just 14 people have lost their lives to an adder bite in the whole of the UK and about 5-10 people are bitten each year in Hampshire. Most of them recover very fast and just 1-2 people each year may end up with a short stay in hospital. Despite those facts the adder is not very popular. But it is an incredible reptile.

The name adder comes from “Nadder” meaning “serpent”-and “black adder” do indeed exist and are rare dark variants of the typical adder, with its familiar zig-zag marking on its back.

European adder is one of a number of similar snakes from the adder family. Our adder is perhaps the most widespread terrestrial snake in the world with a range extending from the Arctic to temperate Asia and from Greece to Scandinavia. They also have a claim to fame as being the snake species that occurs the highest of any species in the world-up to nearly 3,000 metres in the Alps.

In Hampshire adder have traditionally hibernated in autumn and winter; emerging at the end of April. The female gives out a pheromone (scent) to enable the male to find them. Sometimes two males will find a female at the same time and a fight will ensue; leaving just one victor. The female, which is slightly large than the male, will give birth to between 5 and 20 live babies. The young adder may be small but they are venomous from birth and will quickly adapt to their new surroundings, searching out prey in the heathland undergrowth.

But all is not well for our Hampshire adders. Their last county stronghold is the New Forest. Over the past few years things have begun to change. Firstly the climate. Winters have become unpredictable. So adder sometimes emerge from hibernation thinking it is spring, only to be hit by a sudden blast of late Arctic air. The unpredictable climate of the past 15-20 years is certainly impacting the ability of adder to survive.

Secondly dogs off leads. Adder need to warm themselves using the heat of the sun and that means they can often lie in open grassland areas when the sun is out to warm themselves. Whilst they are doing that, dogs that are not under control will often harass cold snakes, that have not warmed up enough to quickly flee. Adder are naturally very shy; but when their body temperature is low, they can’t escape fast and do resort to biting to defend themselves. Dogs are also responsible for disturbing hibernating snakes. And finally, intensive farming and house building on areas where they used to live which are decimating the population across parts of north and central Hampshire.

So my appeal to all of you this spring is to keep your dogs on leads in areas where adder occur, such as the New Forest. And if you are a land owner then consider leaving areas of rough grassland and scrub for them to safely breed and hibernate. Finally enjoy them-why not join a guided walk or visit the New Forest Reptile centre-where you can get up close and personal with this beautiful little snake, with no risk of getting bitten.