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Issue 25 - Snakes alive

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Snakes alive

Not much can hurt you in Scotland, but the adder can, and as Graham Holliday reports, it's much maligned as a result

The adder is Scotland’s only poisonous snake. As such it has earned a dubious reputation as a threatening animal. However, adders are very rarely dangerous.

In the last 100 years only 12 people are known to have died from adder bites, whereas several people die every year from insect bites and pet dog attacks. Sadly the stigma and a degree of fear continue to surround this shy serpent.

“The danger from adder bites is greatly exaggerated,” explains Peter Norman, biodiversity officer for Dumfries & Galloway Council who is spearheading a 2006 public awareness campaign for adders in Galloway.

“Bites from adders are rare, and most occur when a snake is picked up. Most reactions to adder bites are painful but not serious, although any bite should be regarded as potentially serious and immediate medical advice should be sought.”

Adders are easy to distinguish because of the distinctive dark zig-zag on its back. At about 65 centimetres in length, the females are 10 centimetres longer than their male counterparts. The males are more brightly marked and the females have orange eyes.

They like to bask on rocks and boulders and on open moorland especially in springtime.

“Adders hibernate between November and March, although there is some variation depending on weather,” says Norman. “The best time to see them is on sunny days just after hibernation in March or April when the sun is weak.

“Adders need to spend many hours basking in order to bring their bodies up to a high enough temperature to become active. Later in the year they also spend time basking in the morning sunshine, and to a lesser extent in the evening, but air temperatures are usually warmer and the sun stronger at this time of the year so basking may last for only a short time.”

In the Spring vegetation is relatively low which helps adder spotters. However, adder markings can look surprisingly like dead bracken stems to the untrained eye.

Unlike mammals, adders don’t generate enough body heat through their own metabolism. Once body temperatures are high enough, adders often disappear into long vegetation making it more difficult to spot them during the middle of the day and the middle of the summer.

Adders can be seen throughout the Scottish mainland. The best places to see adders in Dumfries and Galloway are along the coast, particularly the rocky coast of Galloway where they are reasonably common. The bog nature reserves at Carsegowan Moss near Newton Stewart or Kirkconnell Flow near New Abbey plain are good adder spots.

“Most of the Galloway Hills, for example Glentrool, are good, though not some other hills such as the Moffat Hills,” says Norman.

It’s likely that adders have been severely affected by many of the landscape changes to habitat that have occurred in Dumfries and Galloway. Adders are included in public talks, guided walks and on interpretation panels at sites. Dumfries & Galloway Biodiversity Partnership and the Dumfries and Galloway Environmental Resources Centre will launch the wider public awareness and recording campaign for adders later in 2006.

Like bats, public perception of adders is improving, though slowly and a largely misplaced fear remains.


Gillbank House is a late Victorian house originally built for the famous ‘Jenners’ family of Edinburgh in 1895. Spacious, well appointed attractive rooms. AA five star graded and gold standard from the Green Tourism Business Scheme.

8 East Morton St,
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1848 330 597
From £24 per person per night.

Rusko Holidays have a spacious farmhouse and three cottages situated on a private estate on the edge of Galloway Forest park, near Gatehouse of Fleet. The cottages sleep between two and six people. The large Upper Rusko House can accommodate up to 12 guests.

Rusko Holidays,
Gatehouse of Fleet,
Castle Douglas,
Tel: +44 (0)1557 814 215
Price varies according to choice and season. See website for details.

Redbank House is a refurbished country house set in three acres of landscaped gardens. It is a STB four star graded guest house.

New Abbey Road,
From £25 per person per night.


Galloway Forest Park has adders and an abundance of other wildlife. It is Britain’s largest forest park at 300 square miles. It features seashore, mountain tops and forest.

The Galloway Red Kite Trail around Loch Ken is an excellent place to see red kites. In the summer months there is CCTV footage. There is also a feeding station at Bellymack Hill Farm near Laurieston, just 10 minutes drive from RSPB Ken-Dee Marshes Reserve. As many as 30 kites have been seen together during winter months.

Go Walking. Dumfries & Galloway has an online walking guide including a list of walking festivals.