by Geoff Jones, Rural Affairs Officer, East Devon Distict Council, England.

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Why do these sort of things always happen in slow motion? I held the adder behind its head as I had held snakes before, but casually, smoothly this one unhurried, stretched its neck, as perhaps only snakes can do, and gently nipped my index finger with the side of its mouth.

Released the 30 centimetre long female shrank away into the heather to seek a less disturbed place to bask in the early morning spring sunshine. This wasn’t the dagger like, bone scratching stab I had anticipated. This was the softest bite, it didn’t hurt; it hurt less than a bramble and penetrated only the top layer of skin, releasing only a trace of blood. Maybe a small scratch made by a single fang of a sleepy adder would not be a problem; there was no pain, no clear pale yellow venom, no immediate symptoms. Maybe the adder had saved its poison for its first meal of mouse or lizard, after overwintering in a rodent’s burrow.

Before going on, just as a precaution, suck the cut and spit out the poison just like John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck and all the other Hollywood actors who time and time again survived rattlesnake bites. No need to cauterise it and no need for a scalding blade off the camp fire to sterilise the wound. The book at home said ‘venom is effective when it reaches the blood stream and can be swallowed with impunity’, but this, as I was to find out, just wasn’t so.

Half an hour on, passing stonechats chatting on the way back to the car, the finger, then the hand, felt distinctly numb, my lips rubbery and anaesthetised. The gear stick in the car was difficult to shift, the hand was puffy and it was now a case of waiting to see what happened next.

Back at home, jokes were made. ‘I told you so’. ‘Give it time and it will go away’. ‘Lie down for a while and see what happens’.

The arm is bloated and pink, its getting difficult to swallow, my stomach bubbles and churns and …. nausea. Ninety minutes on from the bite we are off to the cottage hospital and we’re beginning to get a little delirious. I’m in control, but this is getting a little worrying, am I going to be a statistic soon? My body says ‘what’s going on, I can’t cope’ and succumbs to shock. The doctor injects antihistamine. I have to be impolite and rush away to the loo, and thankfully, its nearby.

Concerned about the unknown symptoms of snake bites and the effect on a 40+ year old heart, an ambulance is called and the dream like journey is accompanied by a medic who makes small talk but keeps a watchful eye. In Accident and Emergency the electro cardio graph measures the increased heart rate, saline solution courses through my veins and nurses record blood pressure as it falls and slowly recovers. Later the anti-venom arrives, another tube and with my arm raised in a sling I’m wheeled away to sleep. Throughout the evening the curious come to see a snake bite victim, their first, and others make marks on my arm as the tide of anti-venom forces the poison and the redness into retreat.

Back home the next day the arm held high in a sling I read about adders. The swelling went down over the next few days to be replaced by banana coloured bruising, the result of the anti-blood clotting qualities of the venom, all the way up my arm. For a couple of weeks afterwards the finger itched and when on a bike ride the finger went dead and blue in the cool air. I returned to work to find an office draped in rubber snakes and a card with commiserations to Indiadder Jones. A year later as I remember and write, the finger is still slightly numb, the circulation poor and my days of picking up poisonous snakes are over.

A week after the incident I returned to the spot and saw the same adder. Crouched I looked into its beautiful liquorice black iris, surrounded by gold.


In the UK adders bite over 100 people each year but there have only been a dozen deaths and some of these have resulted from the anti-venom.

In India 10,000 people are killed by cobras each year but the carpet viper (range – parts of Africa, Middle East, India) probably kills more people than any other snake.

A retired vet informed me that dog fatalities were commoner in early Spring. Was this because their venom was more concentrated after overwintering or because they took risks to get the best of the spring sunshine?

Reactions to adder bites vary. Some suffer bee sting like symptoms others like me get the full works.

Modern guides tell you not to suck the poison out of the wound and if you’re bitten on the hand hold it high and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

          And finally, our snakes and lizards are wonderful creatures, please help look after them and their habitat.

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