Hunting for snakes on the plains of the Peak

Adder walk on the Eastern Moors, Barbrook: David Carter (top) and Tom Aspinall lead the wall walk
Adder walk on the Eastern Moors, Barbrook: David Carter (top) and Tom Aspinall lead the wall walk

It’s spring, the sun is shining, and hundreds of venomous snakes are waking up at the edge of our city. Don’t panic - this is good news.

“Adders are not scary in the slightest,” said Tom Aspinall from Moors for the Future. “The last thing they want to do is come into contact with a person.

Male adder on the Eastern Moors

Male adder on the Eastern Moors

“If you’re not careful, they’ll disappear before you know they’re there.”

Snakes have had a bad press since biblical times, which is unjustified, said Danny Udall from the Eastern Moors Partnership. Danny is delighted that Sheffield’s moorlands are home to one of the most important concentrations of adders in the English uplands.

“The Eastern Moors are a great place to see adders, and although we think there are well over 400 adders in this area, the fact that they are reclusive and difficult to spot makes it really special when you do see one.”

Biologist David Carter has been monitoring our adder populations for several years, and led a recent public ‘adder walk’ around Barbrook. He said the snake has declined in many parts of the UK compared to its relative success on the moors on Sheffield’s western fringes, where careful land management is giving adders the right ground cover to raise young and hibernate successfully. The reluctance of earlier grouse moor owners to plough up their moors may also have helped retain adder populations a century ago.

Research on the national decline is looking at ‘landscape genetics’ and how busy roads and other natural or unnatural features can split populations, leading to fewer young fertile adders due to inbreeding, David said, before adding some crowd pleasing adder facts: male adders can be electric blue in spring after they’ve shed their skin, for example. And if you’re lucky you may catch an ‘adder dance’ where a couple of half metre long males entwine as they show off to a female.

As to why a male adder sports a barbed double penis, we’d better not go there in a family newspaper.

“I’ve been fascinated by snakes and reptiles since I was a child,” said David. “They’re just so weird aren’t they? They’re not cute and cuddly fluffy things, they’re scaly and secretive and they creep around.”

Which is also a good way to spot one - snakes can’t hear, but they feel vibrations, so creep gently through the grass and heather when on adder safari, and look several yards ahead as they’ll probably slither off as you approach.

The best time and place to see adders is when they’re basking in the sun late in the morning, on rocks or at the edge of vegetation, said Danny, but adder watchers should keep moving rather than disturbing the snakes by setting up a static camera or binoculars for any length of time.

Tom said the public can help with the Moors for the Future ‘Scales and Warts’ survey developed along with Derbyshire Amphibian and Reptile Group to monitor local adders, toads and lizards by downloading an app, or visiting www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/community-science/scales-and-warts for lower-tech postcards.

Four hundred adders (also known by their latin name of vipers) are another good reason to obey the law and keep your dog on a lead on the moors, which will also reduce danger to livestock and nesting birds. Inquisitive dogs can be killed or made ill from adder bites. “One of my dogs was bitten and we ended up with a £2,000 vets bill,” Danny noted.

For humans, just don’t approach adders too closely and certainly don’t pick them up, he said, adding that if you are bitten, just stay still and call for medical advice.

You might not want to take safety tips from the owner of a royal python, but David was emphatic: “Adders are not dangerous. For an average healthy adult, an adder bite is not significantly different to being stung by a wasp or a hornet,” he said.

“The idea they’re dangerous is one reason they were persecuted. No-one liked vipers on their doorstep.”

But nowadays Sheffield should be proud of its snakes, said Danny.

“This is the adder’s home, and we want it to remain their home for a long time.”