While other countries are host to scores of dangerous wild animals, it’s safe to say that Britain is, well, fairly safe when it comes to our native fauna. In fact you are more likely to be injured or killed by animals classed as domesticated than wild, either by pets like our supposed best friend, the dog, or our farmyard favourites such as horses and cows. But we do play host to a few poisonous creatures. We have previously written about how to deal with jellyfish stings, but if you think you’re being smug and avoiding them by staying on dry land, then you need to think about our only native venomous snake, the adder.
How to recognise an Adder
Three species of snake can be found wild in Britain, the adder, the smooth snake and the grass snake, plus a legless lizard, the slow-worm, which often gets mistaken for a snake. All are shy creatures that usually disappear and hide as soon as they feel the vibrations of larger animals like humans coming near them. Only the adder is venomous and capable of delivering a bite which can be very painful and can lead to death if untreated.
Adders are usually brown or grey with a darker zigzag pattern along the length of their back, however, some can appear almost entirely black. They can grow up to 90cm long, although most adults will be between 30cm and 60cm long. All snakes are cold-blooded creatures that cannot control their own body temperature and so slow down in colder weather. In the UK, they usually hibernate between around October and the spring, emerging when the sun starts to get a little stronger.
Where are Adders found?
Adders can be found right across mainland UK. They like undisturbed open land where they can easily bask in sunshine, but where there are also plenty of hiding places, favouring habitats such as moorland, grassland, dunes and woodland fringes. All the types of places we like to go walking on nice days with children and dogs in tow. Luckily for us, these snakes are shy and defensive rather than aggressive, preferring to slink away from danger. Most bites happen because someone has either stepped on an adder or tried to handle it in some way.
Can Adders kill?
The last reported death from an adder bite in the UK was a five year old boy in Scotland in 1975, with 14 recorded deaths over the previous 100 years. So statistically speaking, if you were to be attacked, it probably won’t kill you. But it will injure you. Around 100 adder bites a year are reported in the UK, most of them requiring hospital treatment and several weeks to recover. That figure is for humans, there’s probably quite a number of unfortunate dogs each year as well who have stuck their nose (or paws) in where they’re not wanted.
Of course, other venomous snakes are available. With an unknown number of exotic snakes kept as pets within the UK and many people travelling abroad where there are wild dangerous snakes, it is entirely possible to get bitten by something more deadly.
What do Adder bites do?
So what does an adder bite do to you? There is the obvious severe pain at the bite location, along with swelling and bruising which spreads along the limb. You may have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, feel dizzy, faint or confused. Other symptoms may include an irregular heartbeat, skin rashes (hives) or a swollen mouth, lips, tongue and throat. Breathing difficulties may develop. You are at risk of an allergic reaction or entering anaphylactic shock as your body tries to fight it. Which is why it is essential to seek immediate medical help. Bites from exotic snakes can cause the above symptoms and more; bleeding from the mouth and nose, collapse, shock and muscle paralysis (as well as death).
What should I do if I am bitten?
If you or a companion get bitten when you are miles from a doctor or even your car, what should you do first?
- For adders, keep the affected body part (usually a limb) as still as possible to help prevent the spread of the venom further around the body. For more vulnerable persons or other venomous snake bites, do not allow the victim to move or walk, stretcher them to help if necessary.
- Remove jewellery, watches and any other tight items from the affected limb because if the limb swells, they might cut into skin or restrict circulation.
- Do not remove clothing but do loosen it.
- Do not wash the site as traces of venom may be needed for identification testing by medics.
- Do NOT try to cut the venom out, suck it out or apply a tourniquet.
- Do NOT try to apply any ice, heat or chemicals to the wound.
- For foreign snakes, bandage firmly with a folded pad placed over the strike site (making sure blood flow is not restricted). This is recommended to contain and delay the spread of venom around the system.
- If possible, try to remember the size, shape and colouring of the snake to inform medics.
- Do not try to catch or kill the snake.
- Get medical attention immediately.
Hopefully, you will never need to deal with a snake bite, venomous or otherwise. The number one rule when traversing possible snake territory, or indeed any wild area? Keep your eyes open, be mindful of your surroundings and look where you’re walking.