Wild Words: Kirsten Bell

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1
NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

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Despite reports that it is common to see adders during Lochaber summers, I have never seen one. I think though that I’m in the minority.

This is apparently the time when I might have more chance of spotting them, when the heat brings them out. Robert Macfarlane’s adder poem in The Lost Words describes them as ‘a hank of rope in the late hot sun; a curl/ of bark; a six, an eight:/ For adder is as adder basks’.

The common European adder – Vipera berus

A friend recalls hunting for them in spring as a child: the snakes would still be dozy from their winter sleep, crawling onto rocks warmed by the sun to remind their skin what summer feels like.

My mother-in-law also recounted (with some horror) finding an entire nest of them when she was hanging out the washing, and another friend tells me they found a nest while clearing gorse in Ardgour.

Through these stories, and because I have yet to set eyes on one, adders have taken on almost mythical proportions in my mind. They morph into shapes like the beithir, an enormous serpent fabled to have been killed on Islay.

According to the early-20th century folklorist, Donald Mackenzie, that beast was nine feet long. Its stomach was found to contain ‘several twites, buntings, pipits, larks, and thrushes, and an incredible quantity of milk.’

While adders have been known to predate ground nesting birds, such as lapwings and golden plover, their main diet normally consists of rodents and the occasional lizard. Capable of surviving on one small rodent a month, they could hardly be classed as greedy – especially when compared to some house cats I know. They also do not grow to nine feet; Amphibian and Reptile Conservation has them growing to a more diminutive 60cm.

The females tend towards copper and brown, while the smaller males are grey, and both bear the distinctive zig-zag pattern. As the only venomous snake in the UK, the adder has a reputation as a predator, however it has just as much chance of being predated upon by corvids, birds of prey, badgers or foxes.

Yet recent studies have shown that its markings will put a hunter off the attack, the zig-zags a warning that this prey is armed.

Folklore also contains information on dealing with adder bites. You could race the adder to the nearest body of water: if you make it before the adder, you’ll be cured.

Alternatively, you could kill said snake and rub its fat on the wound, or, if you can get your hands on one, hold a live pigeon to the bite… but it’s probably best to go with the more recent advice.