Adders thriving – In North Yorkshire03/04/2009 10:36:59 A South African student who grew up in an area inhabited by deadly cobras is doing his bit to help the rather less fearsome snakes of the North York Moors.
March 2009. Damian Smith, 38, an ecology undergraduate at Hull University's Scarborough campus, is working with the Forestry Commission to amass new data on a colony of adders in 747 hectare (1,850-acre) Harwood Dale, near Scarborough.
The reptile is the UK's only venomous snake, but its shy and elusive nature means it steers well clear of humans. But fears about its future have seen it recently added to the priority species list in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
North Yorkshire woods - Adder stronghold
"Generally, adders will slither off long before they are encountered by humans," said Damian. "When I was working in Harwood Dale I regularly came across dog walkers who were adamant there were no snakes in the wood - little did they realise there were a couple just a few yards away!"
Working with Hull University tutor, Dr Phil Wheeler in the Centre for Environmental and Marine Science, the research relied on random survey techniques to eliminate counting the same animal twice.
Adders prefer newly planted trees
"This is just the kind of data we need to help us manage our forests," explained Brian Walker, Forestry Commission Wildlife Officer. "Actively managing the forest through a cycle of felling and replanting is crucial to the adder's survival. The snake plays a part in maintaining a healthy eco-system, but there's no set way of assessing populations, which makes this new research so important. We now want to work with Hull University to take the research onto the next level."
Adders have the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes, but they are not aggressive animals. No one has died from an adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. Treat adders with respect and leave them alone.
Most adders are marked with a dark zigzag running down the length of the spine and an inverted 'V' shape on the neck. Females can grow up to 75cms long. Their lifespan is uncertain, but it may be up to 20 years. They go for long periods between meals - adults may eat the equivalent of only nine voles each year.
"My opinion changed when I realised what amazing animals they are. I also became pretty good at spotting them. They tend to pick up on movement, rather than colour, so the key thing is to stay as still as possible when you are near an adder. They are also quite sluggish in the spring when they emerge from hibernation, giving you a better chance of studying them. Although an adder's bite is rarely more than just painful - it has been likened to the sting of a wasp - I took no chances and wore gaiters and thick boots."
Damian grew up in Cape Town and before coming to the UK taught in Thailand. Whilst there he fell in love with the jungle, sparking an interest in ecology and wildlife. That led him to sign up for the Hull University course, where he is now in his final year. He said:
"When we had the recent snowfall I was left thinking about the poor snakes in their hibernation boltholes in Harwood Dale having to endure freezing weather. I just hope the guys I studied make it through to the spring."
Best time to see adders