OK, let’s not fool ourselves, Great Britain is by no way a member of the big leagues when it comes to snakes. We don’t have the Black Mamba that slides around the rocky savannas of Africa, armed with its highly poisonous venom nor do we have a snake that the late great Steve Irwin was going to peck on the cheek. We all know that, and to be honest, most of us Brits are happy that we don’t have to shake out our boots or lift the loo seat everyday.
What we do have are three species of snake. There is the Grass Snake, the old classic found in England and Wales that is perfectly harmless but still grows up to 150cm. Then we have the Smooth Snake, a rare reptile that exclusively inhabits sandy heathland habitat where if the sun is not warm enough, they hibernate and dream of hotter countries. And finally, our only snake that packs some venom, the Adder.
The Adder, which also has the more seductive name of European Viper, can be found throughout the UK except for the Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. It is in fact the most northerly found snake in the world, with Adders living in the Arctic Circle (beat that, Black Mambas). Both the males and females have a distinctive zig zag pattern down their back, with the males having more silvery grey bodies and the females being a reddish brown. If you are going to spot one, and hopefully not step on one, it is likely to be between April and September as the Adder likes to ride out the colder parts of the year in hibernation. Nature facts out of the way, let’s get down to the brass tacks: If you get bitten by an Adder, are you going to survive?
The good news is that the last recorded fatality by Adder bite in Great Britain was in 1975, and since 1876 there have only been 14 recorded deaths so don’t stop heading into the wild. The Adder is a shy snake, there is estimated to be only 50-100 people bitten by them each year and slightly higher numbers for dogs but that doesn’t mean it is harmless. They eat small mammals (your voles and mice), nestling birds and small lizards and their venom load has evolved to take down this prey. That means if you do get bitten by an Adder you are getting a small dose of venom but it still packs a punch.
So what happens and what do you do if you are bitten by an Adder? It is going to hurt, for some it might be no worse than a bee sting but for others it is going to be a rollercoaster ride of pain, and in rare cases a very serious problem. In a third of reported Adder bites, the snake doesn’t actually inject any venom so you might get away with a bad bite and some swelling but for an envenomated bite people have reported feeling nausea, vomiting, confusion, swelling of the bite area and also the face, fainting and breathing difficulties. A friend of Fera, a tough Namibian based down in Cornwall, was bitten on the leg while camping on the coast and he said it was the worst pain he has ever experienced. And coming from him, that means something.
So it is not going to be a fun time, and a bite should never be underestimated, especially for the young or old. The key, after experiencing one, is to keep the bitten area as still as possible. This is good advice for most bites as it prevents the venom from spreading and it is also recommended to take off any jewelry and loosen clothing before the swelling begins. We shouldn’t need to say it, but don’t go all Croc Dundee and try to suck out the venom or kill the snake. If you can identify it then great but otherwise let it slither off.
We also don’t recommend shouting ‘faul’ like the Anglo-Saxons did, believing it cured the effects, although shouting might relieve some of your anger from the pain so perhaps don’t rule it out. Finally (or perhaps firstly), seek expert medical assistance. Hospitals and medics in the UK are well versed in treating Adder bites and you just never know how your body might react. So good luck out there and remember, statistically you are more likely to die from a wasp sting than from a bite from our shy Adder.