MEET Norris. I’m not sure that’s his actual name, because he disappeared a little too quickly into the gorse to indulge in idle chatter.
But then it’s notoriously difficult to get close to an adder without scaring it away, even though local ramblers and rangers blithely talk about spotting them basking in the early morning sun as if the moor was awash with the wrigglers.
Nonetheless, after a couple of long years of scouring the local heath, we are delighted to get to meet our first adder at long last. (To see him in action, see the video below.)
Why not Anthony the adder? Or Adelaide, for that matter? Well, as you probably know, the snake’s common name is the result of a historical pronunciation error. Back in the day, this was a “nadder” in the same way that people once spoke of naprons, noranges and numpires.
In historical linguistics they call this metanalysis or rebracketing, when we break down a word or phrase into segments or meanings different from the original, so Norris the nadder it is for now, with a nod to Old English.
We are wandering amid the gorse and heather of Stoke Common, but this is our first encounter with its most formidable resident, one of Britain’s most exotic native species and our only venomous snake. And without doubt there’s a visceral thrill about seeing that distinctive diamond pattern and frankly scary wriggle.
“There’s nothing madder than a trodden on adder,” said Spike Milligan, but these are actually very shy, timid snakes that tend to bite only in self-defence, usually when someone is attempting to capture them or has inadvertently stepped on them.
After the recent storms, it’s a blustery day on the common, which may be one reason we have managed to get so close to our new friend before he makes a dash for it.
Each adder is unique and the patterns on their heads are as individual as a human fingerprint, apparently, although the markings are also amazing camouflage, making them difficult to spot in this ancient heathland landscape where they can hide among the scrub and gorse and venture out to bask, thermoregulating by moving between sun and shade, since they need to raise their body temperature before they become fully active.
As Shakespeare warned in Julius Caesar: “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking.”
Like other members of the viper family, the eggs hatch within the mother and the young are born live. Hence that ‘viper’ name, derived from the Latin for ‘live birth’.
They love rough grasslands, heaths and moorland like this: anywhere with sunny spots for basking, dense cover for shelter and plenty of prey like small mammals, ground-nesting birds, reptiles and amphibians.
So how nasty is that bite? Pretty bad, apparently. Some 50 to 100 people every year get bitten, and a similar number of dogs, although human deaths are rare, with only around 14 recorded fatalities from adder bites since 1876, the last almost half a century ago.
That’s not to make light of the potential injuries, though. It’s only a month since a distraught dad was warning about the excruciating pain suffered by his three-year-old son when he was bitten at a family picnic in a country park.
Pet dogs have certainly died from adder bites and, since this is the only venomous snake in much of northern Europe, perhaps it was inevitable that myths and misunderstandings would surround the snakes, including a widespread belief that its “sting” lay in its forked tongue rather than delivering venom through their hinged, hollow fangs.
Legends and folk tales span the centuries and it’s hard to tell which are the more gruesome of the many and varied medical cures and traditions surrounding the poor snakes, many of which are recounted on Tim Sandles’ Legendary Dartmoor website.
Would you prefer to rub the bite wound with a dead snake, toad skin, the foot of a dead owl, a live pigeon or the straw from a swallow’s nest? Honeysuckle leaves are a slightly more palatable alternative.
Watching Norris wriggle off into the undergrowth, it’s hard not to shiver at the sight. It certainly doesn’t do to think too much about him and his mates hibernating together during the winter in large groups, as many reptiles do.
They can survive for months like that, it seems, emerging in the spring when it’s warm enough for them to bask in the dappled shade of a gorse bush before mustering the energy to start hunting again.
Our folklore is riddled with stories and superstitions relating to the snakes, and adders are often attributed with powers of wisdom or a sly nature.
But if they were sacred to the druids they were also much persecuted: killing the first adder of spring was supposed to bring the perpetrator good luck and bashing one with an ash stick before sunset would also supposedly neutralise evil sprits.
Wearing the skin of an adder inside a hat could ensure the wearer never suffered from headaches, a skin worn around the leg would banish symptoms of rheumatism and one hung over the fireplace would attract good fortune.
Noawadays it is illegal to kill one: since 1981 adders have become a ‘protected species’, although it was not always thus. Tim Sandles’ recalls the letter written to the Western Morning News in September 1925 when the Reverend Hugh Breton recounted: “I always kill them if I can, as they are dangerous to man and beast…”
Even the famous adder dance, in which pairs of snakes entwine themselves around each other and wrestle energetically, is frequently misinterpreted, it seems. Instead of being a courtship ritual, it is actually a duel between territorial males.
Poor old Norris. So many misconceptions! Still, mugging up on adder folklore has at least uncovered one certain way to spot an adder, according to Dartmoor legend at least.
Find a dragonfly, because if you see one hovering there will be an adder basking below it; many believed the dragonfly was put on the moor to warn mankind of presence of the poisonous snake. Sorted. Now we know how to find one in future…
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The word adder comes from the Old English word for the species, naeddre. Over time this became ‘nadder’ and reference to “a nadder”, soon became “an adder”. In the development of language this process, whereby a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word, is called metanalysis.