Sunday book review – The Secret Life of the Adder by Nicholas Milton

This is a very attractive and interesting book about a species which, these days, I hardly ever see. When did you last see an Adder? I haven’t seen one for years and yet in my youth they were noticeably commoner. As were signs saying ‘Danger Adders’ which I always thought were put in places (eg where I used to go scrumping apples) simply to dissuade entry rather than because of any real danger, or even any real Adders.

This is a fascinating book about a species to which we have deliberately given a hard time over the centuries through persecuting it because of its venomous nature. We’ve acted as though we were very scared of this species and yet we are not far from the 50-year anniversary of the last person to die in the UK from an Adder bite (1975) and there have, it seems, been 14 deaths since 1876.  Adder bites are serious though and no laughing matter although the vast majority happen to people who pick up or otherwise touch this venomous creature.

However, rather than linger on the harm that an Adder could do to us we should be thinking much more about the good we could to them. The decline in Adder numbers is not mostly due to deliberate persecution, the days of there being a snake catcher, one Harry Mills, making a living in the New Forest from catching or killing Adders are long gone. No, the threats to this wonderful creature are many and various including disturbance by photographers and dog walkers, climate change, habitat loss and degradation, although the hysterical manner in which Adders are covered in the British media, particularly local press, can’t win this declining species many friends.

The author highlights the belief, which is widespread amongst reptile experts, that non-native gamebirds, particularly Pheasants are a threat to Adders, and that their massive increase in numbers over the last 50 years has been a contributing cause of the Adder’s decline.  There are graphic descriptions of how Pheasants attack Adders and the impacts of those attacks.

This leads, in the last chapter, to increased regulation of gamebird releases being one of the 10 suggestions for Adder recovery – the proposal is that there should be no gamebird releases within a mile of known Adder sites.  Alongside this proposal are nine other interesting suggestions which include reporting inaccurate and sensational media coverage to regulators, reintroductions and better protection for known Adder hotspots.

There are over 100 colour images in the book, most of them of Adders, and the book does have a sumptuous feel to it – it’s an attractive thing to hold in your hands and an interesting one to read.

The cover is gorgeous – I’d give it 9/10 even though the back cover is a bit gruesome.

The Secret life of the Adder: the vanishing Viper by Nicholas Milton is published by Pen and Sword

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6 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Secret Life of the Adder by Nicholas Milton”

  1. I saw my first a female on Salthouse heath way back in the 1980s and have seen quite a few since including many in the Swedish Baltic the last on the Dyfi NNR last autumn. Always an exciting thing to see beautiful and provided you don’t behave like an idiot perfectly harmless. Far more afraid of us than we should be of them. I will probably buy this book.

    1. I saw one ?, twice, two days apart, in the exact same spot, on a run down grouse moor on upper Speyside last week.
      I could easily have killed it with a stick.
      A few Pheasant are released in woods bordering the moor i believe, with Red-legs replacing the grouse nowadays.
      Although i am not sure if that will apply this year.

  2. So pleased I saw this review.
    March is one of my favourite times of year, when you watch these beautiful animals lying out, at a distance, with minimal risk of disturbance.
    Ordered – thanks
    Ian

  3. I was born near Atherstone; a corruption of Adderstone. Anyway that’s what we were taught. The local football team were “The Adders” and I grew up to the shout of “Up the Adders’.

    Is there any other team named after a reptile?

    For lots of other reasons too I would support the restriction of Pheasant release numbers.

    1. With the unfortunate situation regarding imports of eggs and chicks from the near continent , many shoots will not be releasing Pheasant or Partridge this year.
      Maybe the result will be a surfeit of basking Adders and other threatened Reptiles and Amphibians, scarce woodland plants, etc, next Spring.

  4. I too would enthusiastically support a reduction of pheasant releases- they consume food which should be for other wildlife as well as threatening some species like adders. I am not optimistic that this government will be interested as they will be supporting the landowners. Great news that there may be a reduction this year. We noticed such a difference when the releases were paused for lockdown!

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