Top tips for spotting snakes in spring

Jess Price from the Sussex Wildlife Trust explains what our native snakes will be experiencing during this late spring. 

Adder Digesting

The clocks have sprung back and evenings are definitely lighter, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be getting any warmer yet! For wildlife this has generally meant that things are happening a bit later and a bit slower. This time last year, balmy March temperatures made spring a fantastic time to go reptile-spotting. Whereas this year, the snakes of Sussex have been pretty elusive so far. 

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Snakes may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I think they are fantastic animals to watch in the wild. I particularly love adders and we are lucky to have a number of populations in Sussex. Normally adders start to emerge from hibernation in March, but I’d be surprised to see any snakes braving the snow flurries we saw last week.

Hopefully once it warms up they’ll start to appear. Spring is a great time to see adders, as this is when they move around most searching for mates. You may even be lucky enough to spot a pair of male adders ‘dancing’ to impress a female. Males rear up the front of part of their bodies and sway back and forth in an attempt to push their opponent to the ground. This is repeated over and over until one of the competitors becomes exhausted and crawls away to leave the victor to mate.

Unfortunately across the country adder numbers have been in steep decline over the last few decades mostly due to habitat fragmentation and disturbance. Additionally as the UK’s only species of venomous snake, adders have historically been persecuted. In reality the risk of getting bitten by an adder is very low. These snakes do not want to waste their venom biting something they can’t eat so will only use it to defend themselves as a last resort.

There are only around 100 adder bites reported in the UK each year, and the majority of these come from people who tried to pick a snake up. Additionally according to the NHSAdder bites can be painful but they are rarely serious. In most cases the only treatment required is observation in hospital.’ If you are unlucky enough to get bitten it’s a good idea to go to your nearest A&E and get checked over, but the risk is not something to be overly concerned about.

Adder numbers are in such a worrying state that they have been designated as a UK BAP priority species and require immediate conservation action. Why not help increase our knowledge of adders by taking part in the Add and Adder scheme run by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC). This project aims to collection information about the status of adders across Britain. ARC is looking for both new and old records, observations and anecdotes to help them gain a better understanding of where adders are and where they have been in the past.

Five handy adder spotting hints:

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  • Males tend to be grey with black markings whilst females are often more reddish-brown. Adders can be identified by a zigzag marking running down their back and a V or X shape on the head.
  • Look for basking adders before midday on sunny, sheltered south facing banks.
  • Walk slowly and quietly – although adders are quite short sighted they see movement, feel vibrations and have a good sense of smell.
  • Watch your step – Adder are sluggish when they fist emerge from hibernation and are therefore more likely to bite as a defence mechanism.
  • Adders can be found in many different habitats but mostly prefer undisturbed grassy marginal areas on the edges of woodlands.