by Josh Phanghura
It’s hard to describe in words the concoction of thoughts and feelings that adders resonate through me. Their admirable ability to emerge on chilly days in February (or sometimes earlier), even if there is snow on the ground and temperatures are near 0°C, give a true sense of extraordinary hardiness in the ectothermic animal kingdom. Their exquisite markings rival the intricacy of any British bird or butterfly, which is especially evident in the males who can boast bright silvery colouration with a highly contrasting, dorsal black zigzag that runs along the length of the body. As if that wasn’t dashing enough, their eyes are a piercing crimson red, giving them a somewhat falsely menacing appearance. The fact that males perform dazzling wrestling matches, where no biting is allowed, to settle who wins territory and the right to mate with a female is wonderfully sophisticated for a so called ‘cold-blooded’, unintelligent life form. These reptiles have taken me to some of the most beautiful environments in Britain. Rich, golden brown bracken beds in bluebell-carpeted woodlands around East Sussex; a sea of pink and purple on the sandy New Forest heaths, up on the rugged sea cliffs of Anglesey or the white chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight with an oceanic backdrop and warm, grassy south-facing banks full of wildflowers and buzzing with insect life. These are all of the utterly pleasant settings in which I have found myself watching adders in all their glory. And of course, being Britain’s only venomous snake provides a sense of excitement that can’t be triggered by any other species in the country. I personally think that they are among the most remarkable animals on the entire planet. I mean what other snake can make a living well within the arctic circle on a just few meals per year?
These are just a few attributes that make adders a British natural history marvel. However, the bleak, gut-wrenching truth is that our vipers are on the brink of extinction in much of their UK range. In 2005 the ‘Make the Adder Count’ survey was launched to gather records of the snakes from citizen sightings, as well as conducted surveys, across the entire country in order to assess the current state of the British adder population. Analysis of the first 11 years of this data yielded very worrying results. In the words of University of Reading researcher Dr. Emma Gardner:
“Our analysis shows that 90% of the sites surveyed have small populations and on average these small populations are declining. When surveyors visit these sites, they typically record less than 10 adders. Only 10% of sites have large populations, which seem to be doing ok. If these trends continue, within 10-20 years, adders will be restricted to just a few sites in the UK, significantly increasing the extinction risk for this priority species in Britain.”3
The two main factors contributing to this alarming decline may surprise you. One of these factors is habitat destruction, but this is not solely due to building development as you might expect. This is also caused by management plans designed to benefit other wildlife on existing nature reserves. The cutting of grass and other dense vegetation, for example, to encourage the growth of certain plants for a rare butterfly, is detrimental to adders that live in the area. Adders need dense cover to stay safe from predators and hibernation dens (known as hibernacula), which adders continually use every year, are often located under dense thickets of vegetation. What’s worse is that some snakes are directly killed by machinery in the process of this management! Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the conservation of other struggling species, but it should not proceed at the devastating expense of another.
The other critical factor is disturbance by the public. This includes trampling through adder habitat (knowingly and unknowingly), ultimately destroying the living quarters of the snakes and frightening the animals. Furthermore, curious dogs cause substantial disturbance to adders when they are off of their leads, which is often what leads to the few dog-inflicted adder bites that have occurred in the UK. It is crucial that people stick to paths and keep their dogs on leads in areas where adders are known to or might occur. In fact, taking dogs to areas where adders are unlikely to occur, such as open, frequently trimmed fields in local parks, reduces the risk of a pooch taking a venomous bite from a scared snake defending itself. I emphasise on the ‘scared’ part as adders are shy animals that will almost always try to flee if they sense a potential threat. The all too common, sad result of adder-dog conflict is the native, conservation priority reptile getting undeserved negative press in the media.
It may surprise you that wildlife photographers can be a major contribution to adder disturbance as well. What? How can people who love wildlife be contributing to the decline of a species? Well, not all wildlife photographers care about the animals as much as you would think. Some photographers care more about a photograph and will catch adders to ‘pose’ them in a defensive manor to make the image more ‘dramatic’. In extreme cases, adders are caught and kept in cool, captive conditions so that they are easy to manipulate for a sought after image. Not only does this stress the animal, but in the case of males, it can be detrimental to their fertility. In early spring, adders are much easier to observe as males bask out in the open after emerging from their winter slumber. Yes, they are doing this to warm up, but there is more to basking than meets the eye. Males must bask as much as possible at this time of year for optimal sperm ripening in preparation for breeding with the later emerging females. This costs 5% of the snake’s body mass, a significant percentage as most adders in early spring would not have eaten for many months.1, 2
If early emerging adders are caught by over-eager photographers at this sensitive time of year, then breeding success can be hindered a month or so later on, which can seriously impair a population. Of course, while going out to ethically photograph adders, it is sometimes impossible to avoid disturbance if you do not see the snakes until you have already caused them to flee with your footsteps. Even reptile surveyors sometimes have this problem and any surveyor that says they have never accidentally disturbed an adder is probably lying. Their brilliant camouflage can make them difficult to see! However, this accidental disturbance can build up and have a significant impact on localised adder populations that are frequently visited, as vital basking time becomes limited. With this problem in mind, challenging yourself to find new, unrecorded adder populations in areas of suitable habitat is highly beneficial. Unless you are with a group, it is quite likely that you will be the only person there in search of the snakes and you will also be doing your bit for science by submitting these records.
I love photographing wildlife. This is why I invested in the sigma 150-600mm contemporary telephoto lens. This lens enables me to capture frame-filling images of these stunning vipers without them being aware of my presence, which is the optimal situation a wildlife photographer could possibly hope for. The minimum focal distance is approximately 280cm, which is usually a good distance that avoids disturbance in my experience.
Here are some shots I have taken using the Sigma 150-600mm lens on my Nikon D7200:
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation carried out a public interactions survey at the ‘Vanishing Viper’ conference held in Somerset, 2016. They asked a series of questions to people from the NGO sector, statutory bodies, land managers, ecological consultants, academic institutions and enthusiastic volunteers from Amphibian and Reptile Groups around the UK. One of the findings that stood out to me was that 79% percent of participants believed that photographer disturbance is a small issue and 35.75% were ‘not sure’ if photographers caused significant disturbance or not. I guess wildlife photography is generally considered a non-invasive way of enjoying wildlife, but the ugly side to it is clearly not spoken about enough. So it seems that education, as with many conservation projects, is the key to preventing these negative impacts. Anyone can raise awareness about this issue and other aspects of adder conservation, even if you just share a relevant, informative source on social media. A significant number of people will see it, even if it doesn’t get many likes. What you should not do is reveal the exact location of the adders that you see on the internet. Unfortunately, there are people that will take advantage of this to invasively photograph the snakes or some people will even collect/kill them (yes, it really pains me to say it, but this still happens in the 21st century).
Why should we care? Well, surely the countryside is more vibrant and exciting with a compelling viper around, but there are deeper reasons for saving the adder. The snakes eat small mammals, lizards, frogs and birds, which controls the population of these species to maintain ecological equilibrium. An ecological imbalance would most likely result in habitat and ecosystem degradation. Furthermore, adders tend to be key indicator species for the habitats that they are found in. The decline of adders almost certainly means that other species that depend on the same habitat are declining as well.
What can you do? The Make the Adder count survey is ongoing, so if you see any adders then it Is extremely helpful to submit sightings with as much information as possible (location, time, date, gender, life stage, photographs etc.) to https://www.recordpool.org.uk/make-the-adder-count. If you live in the UK, I would also invite you to get in touch with your county Amphibian and Reptile Group (ARG) to find out what adder conservation projects are taking place in your local area. Better still, there are usually events, such as surveys and habitat management workshops that require the efforts of volunteers. If you just simply want to learn more about adder conservation in the UK, then this is the perfect opportunity to learn from experienced people in this field.
I think too many people are unaware that Britain’s viper is vanishing. I mean many Brits have never even seen an adder before. Spread the word as much as you can. Tell your family and your friends. Get them involved with local ARG adder projects. There are very few people who forget seeing their first adder, as there’s just something unique about seeing such a striking snake in the UK. Expose them to that privilege and provide them with that memorable experience. Let’s save the adder!
1 – Olsson, M., Madsen, T. and Shine, R., 1997. Is sperm really so cheap? Costs of reproduction in male adders, Vipera berus. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 264(1380), pp.455-459.
Full analyses of ten years of Make the Adder Count data can be view at: 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