Adders, Adrenalin & Unblinking Red Eyes

May 2, 2014

I've never found myself alone in the wild, face down in bracken, and staring into a red, unblinking snake eye before, but for Radio 4's The Living World this week, I found myself on the shores of Loch Lomond, hunting for adders.

 

On a cold, misty, drizzly and windy Scottish day I felt little hope of seeing one, and wondered why we hadn't headed south.

 

But our cheerful expert, Chris McInerny, assured us that there was a great chance of encountering Britain's only venomous snake....if we got any brightness at all.

 

This is because they have only just emerged from hibernation, so need to heat up their cold-blooded bodies in the sun, and as yet they haven't warmed up enough to move very quickly. However, this lack of getaway speed has a down side too - this is the time of year when we're most likely to get bitten as a result of standing on one.

 

Five hours later the weather had improved little, and we had repeatedly visited every single adder hibernacular in the area - some of which Chris knew held four or five adders - but none would show themselves. We did make a great start to the recording in their absence, but a Living World isn't complete without an encounter, so we were resigned to coming back the next day.

 

Then Chris remembered a more remote spot where a snake had been spotted recently. As they are very site-faithful we decided to give it a try.

 

Bingo! A large and beautifully marked male adder basking amongst the bracken. Well camouflaged but unmistakable.

 

There's always a thrill and huge sense of awe when I come across a snake in the wild. While I'm not generally afraid of them, I am always aware that they could be a danger, so at that moment my adrenaline surged and my heart beat a good bit faster.

 

But the adder - which I came to christen Lazy Boy - was very placid, allowing all three of us to get within a couple of metres of him. Over the next few minutes he watched us watching him, and describing every detail and languid movement for our listeners. Only when misty cloud flowed back down the hillside did he shrug and pulse back into the bracken to keep warm underground. Our programme was complete.

 

My only regret was that I couldn't record the radio track and take photographs at the same time, but the focusing and shutter sounds are too distracting on a radio soundtrack.

 

So next morning - mindful that I was now on my own, and with Chris's assertion in mind that standing on an adder is a possibility at this time of year - I donned my Berghaus boots and gaiters combination and returned to the same spot. I found him straight away, lazing under a sky that was only one shade paler grey than the previous day. With this scant amount of brightness I reckoned he would have to be here a while to warm up.

 

The two of us shared a very pleasant three hours...at least in my opinion. I marvelled at his gloss and exquisite detailing, while I contorted to get a clear view for my lens without scaring him. He didn't seem to mind, just kept an unblinking red eye on me, adjusted his position every now and again, and put up with being photographed with better grace than many a human subject.

 

It was an intense and intimate morning, and I felt honoured that he let me stay. I hope that the images here reflect that. Some are pretty straightforward shots, while in others I've tried to show him as you might - or might not - spot him in his home environment.

 

For the full story of the Loch Lomond adders join me for The Living World, BBC Radio 4 this Sunday morning at 6.35 (then available on BBC i-player if you're not an early bird! )

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