UK’s poisonous snake is a misunderstood gem of countryside, says Liam Creedon

Going in search of the UK’s only venomous snake might, on the face of it, not seem like the sharpest of ideas. But an encounter with dancing adders, as males fight each other for breeding rites, is one of spring’s most thrilling and overlooked spectacles.

Despite being small, timid and uncommon, the burden of being our only remotely dangerous reptile means an aura of fear and fascinat-ion has attached itself to the adder. The blame for this may lie with the snake’s appearance. The hypnotic zig-zag back pattern coupled with burning, beady eyes create a somewhat malevolent impression, that has become entwined into our literature and folklore.

An adder’s fork (tongue) is one of the witches’ ingredients for their gruesome brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and an adder pops up with deadly results in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. According to legend, the battle in which King Arthur died was started when the snake put in an unexpected appearance and startled a soldier.

But if you look more closely at the adder, a stunningly beautiful slithering success story is revealed.

Both males and females are exquis-itely marked; the males sporting coal-black back zig-zags, the females with markings etched in brown. Rather than being beady, their elliptical eyes are bewitching, amber jewels.

And rather than lurking, poised to strike behind every bush, most adders flee terrified at the approaching vibrations of human footfall — only biting as a last resort if handled or stepped upon.

The adder is something of a super snake, too. Its adaptability has enabled it to conquer a huge geographical range, even managing to make a home in the very un-snakelike environs of the freezing Arctic Circle.

But it’s in the balmier conditions of the British springtime where the most memorable encounters with adders can be enjoyed.

Late March sees the sluggish males emerge from hibernation; they can be spied in the early mornings heading for basking spots where the heat of the sun will speed up the development of their sperm. In April, the larger females emerge, a juncture signalling the start of the ‘dancing season’.

Or perhaps ‘Strictly Come Fighting’ would be a more appropriate term for the slithering equivalent of adders on the dance floor.

Males painstakingly court their paramours, but if interrupted by a rival a fight — or ‘dance’ will break out. The two males rise up to swing rhythmically against each other, then they attempt to wrestle their oppon-ent to the ground. No biting is invol-ved during the battles, with the loser slinking away once overpowered.

Conservationists are eagerly awaiting the first snake dances of 2014 so they can begin to assess how adders fared in one of the most unusual winters in recent memory.

Jim Foster, conservation director at Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) said: “No one knows for sure yet how adders coped over the winter. It is possible that some have been flooded out during hibernation. Perhaps paradoxically, there is also some indication that hard, cold winters are better for temperate reptiles like adders.

“At ARC we will be carefully assessing numbers of adders observed this spring, to see if there’s any sign of an effect from the extreme weather. “We have had some early reports of adders emerging in the last month, and let’s hope the survey results are encouraging.

“Sadly there are indications of a decline in UK adder numbers,” adds Foster. “We have lost populations to habitat destruction, lack of management and persecution.”

If you spot an adder this spring record your sighting at