12 October 2012

Dragon of the Month: Adder

Every month in 2012, Froglife is celebrating a different 'dragon' that can be spotted in and around the UK. This month, Vanessa Barber has been finding out about the UK’s most notorious snake species, the Adder.

"With their bold zig-zag markings, and fiery red eyes the Adder is perhaps the most easily recognisable British snake species.

Adders are native to the UK and northern Europe, although absent from Ireland. They are the only species of snake found inside the Arctic circle. The Adder’s name has its roots in an Old English word for the species ‘Naeddre’. Over time this became ‘Nadder’ and reference to ‘A Nadder’ finally became ‘An Adder’.

The Adder is the only native venomous snake species in the UK. Because of the protection that their venom affords them Adders are less inclined to hide when disturbed, and so are probably the most frequently seen of the three British snake species. Although Adders are not an aggressive species they will bite as a last line of defence, usually if caught or trodden on. Adder bites can be very painful but they are rarely fatal. In fact, no-one has died from an Adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. The Anglo-Saxons believed that saying the charm word “Faul” would cure the effects of an adder bite, and since almost everyone would have survived, this ‘remedy’ appeared to work very well! If you spot an adder, the best advice is to give to treat them with respect and watch them from a safe distance.

During the autumns adult snakes will follow scent trails left by other adders to hibernation sites. The young usually hibernate near to their birth site. The survival of these young snakes is closely tied to the severity of the weather during the winter.  They are protected by law against being killed or injured through human activity.  

Although the Adder is listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN there is a growing body of data to suggest that adder populations are in national decline. The adder is now considered to be locally extinct in Hertfordshire, and is scarce across parts of the Midlands. Thankfully robust populations still exist in counties with large tracts of suitable habitat such as the North of England."

Dragon Fact File: Common European Adder
Vipera berus
A male adder with distinctive black markings
  • Adders favour areas of heathland, woodland and moorland open to plenty of sunlight.
  • The adder is found in most UK counties, although it is absent from Ireland
  • The adder can be found across the Eurasian land-mass, including northwestern, eastern, and southern Europe
  • Unlike most reptiles, Adders do not lay eggs but instead give birth to live offspring. Females usually give birth in late August or early September
  • Adders feed on a wide variety or prey. They are particularly partial to small rodents like the short-tailed vole, but will also eat the chicks of ground nesting birds, as well as lizards, frogs and newts
  • Adders themselves are a favourite prey item of birds of prey, including the common buzzard
  • Adults reach 60-80cm long
  • Adders have a distinctive zigzag pattern down the centre of their back and a ‘V’ or ‘X’ shape marking on their heads.Males are grey with black markings
  • Females are light brown with dark brown markings
A well camouflaged female adder
  • Adders can be a rare black or melanistic form
  • Young snakes are about the size and shape of an earthworm, but a perfect miniature of the adult
  • The eyes of both sexes tend to be red
Adders have red-brown eyes with a vertical slit-shaped pupil

Photos: Jules Howard and Matt Wilson