Snakes alive!

The Oban Times - - Districts - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

SNAKES have al­ways had a bad im­age. In mythol­ogy, they have been sym­bols of evil and in films they have rep­re­sented the ul­ti­mate me­nace, likely to be shot or pul­verised as they are about to strike.

Now that many of them are pro­tected, their fu­ture looks brighter.

I have met many snakes in my life – some with two legs, oth­ers with none. My first en­counter with the slith­er­ing va­ri­ety was in Glen­hurich, the Glen of the Yew Trees, be­tween Loch Su­nart and Loch Shiel.

Here, as a young boy, I found a large adder curled up un­der a sheet of cor­ru­gated-iron while I was out walk­ing ahead of my mother. ‘ What is this funny-look­ing beast?’ I re­call ask­ing her as I stroked and prod­ded it as she caught up with me. Luck­ily it must have been in a state of semi-hi­ber­na­tion, or had just eaten, be­cause it did not stir. The fol­low­ing day, to my dis­ap­point­ment, it had slipped away. I have been in­trigued by them ever since.

I have stalked and pho­tographed adders on Jura while liv­ing in the awe­some sea- caves be­tween Loch Tar­bert and Glen­gar­ris­dale.

Ev­ery year, in May, they make their way onto the an­cient raised beaches which are such a fea­ture of Jura’s north west coast­line, to for­age among the stones for seag­ull eggs and chicks.

In Glen Libidil, on the Lag­gan Deer For­est on Mull, I once found my­self on a hot sum­mer’s day, briefly shar­ing a pool with an adder in the burn which runs down through the glen from the Bealach More to the Firth of Lorn. We parted com­pany, nei­ther the worse of our meet­ing.

In mid April it is fas­ci­nat­ing to lie watch­ing the males stand up, writhing and coil­ing about each other in a fan­tas­tic ‘dance’. Both sway­ing side­ways in con­trary di­rec­tion, then slowly com­ing back to­gether, their bod­ies meet­ing and then cross­ing be­fore the win­ner even­tu­ally makes off to mate with the fe­male who is usu­ally ly­ing coiled close by.

Adders, or vipers as they are of­ten called, used to be found through­out Ar­gyll. Robert Buchanan, in his He­bride Isles (1882), wrote that al­though they swarmed on the sides of Ben Cru­achan, they were never found else­where in Lorn - a state­ment dis­puted by fel­low au­thor An­der­son Smith (1844-1906) who said they were once fairly com­mon in Benderloch, at Achn­aba, Ledaig and Lochnell.

Smith also recorded that the adders on Mull were par­tic­u­larly large, venomous and nu­mer­ous but had been kept down by the sheep whose in­tro­duc­tion, along with the clear­ance of brush­wood and land drainage, had re­duced their num­bers. The re­moval of the sheep from the Lag­gan Deer For­est by Ma­claine of Lochbuie in 1890 ob­vi­ously al­lowed them to re- col­o­nize as they are again plen­ti­ful ex­cept near the coast­line where there are a num­ber of wild goats – an­i­mals well-known for go­ing out of their way to kill them.

Kin­tyre was re­puted to be a haven for adders – per­haps it still is. A re­port, writ­ten in 1900 records: ‘Kin­tyre is fairly in­fested with these rep­tiles [adders], whose bite is poi­sonous, as many a farmer in that district can tes­tify through the loss they sus­tain yearly by their cat­tle be­ing bit­ten while graz­ing.

‘They are more nu­mer­ous about Cour, on the penin­sula, than in any other part of Scot­land, it be­ing a com­mon oc­cur­rence to kill 80 or 90 of them dur­ing the sea­son there, in April and May. Some are striped with red, and their backs are hairy, while their eyes, which are pink­ish like fer­rets, gleam like sparks of fire. Twenty- eight inch long ones are fre­quently to be met with, and Alexan­der Ste­wart, last sea­son, shot one which mea­sured 30 inches, as it was twin­ning it­self round a sil­ver birch tree. I am in­formed by a gen­tle­man who was born and brought up in that lo­cal­ity that he him­self shot some white ones, also pink- eyed, which mea­sured 48 inches.’

As to the ve­rac­ity of this re­port, adders do show an enor­mous vari­a­tion in length and colour. The one char­ac­ter­is­tic mark is a zigzag stripe down the mid­dle of the back. Al­binism has not been recorded be­fore, but melanism is not un­com­mon.

On av­er­age a UK adult can grow up to 31 inches, any­thing big­ger is prob­a­bly an ex­ag­ger­a­tion al­though Alexan­der Forbes, in his ‘Gaelic Names of Beasts, Birds, Fishes, In­sects and Rep­tiles’ (1905) wrote: ‘There are three kinds of ser­pents or adders in the is­land of Skye, one spot­ted black and white is said to be the most venomous and is said to be from two to four feet in length, a sec­ond is spot­ted brown, and the third brown.’

Alexan­der Burn-Mur­doch, who used to lease an es­tate in Morvern in the late 19th cen­tury, recorded that he had killed adders in Perthshire of 28 inches in length and one in Ard­na­mur­chan of 25 inches. He also men­tioned the lo­cal post­man, on hear­ing a strug­gle in the heather near the road one day, found an adder hold­ing onto the leg of a young grouse. He killed the adder but the grouse soon died.

An adult adder in Glen Libidil, Mull, eat­ing a frog. Photo by Iain Thorn­ber.

The Dance of the Adders. From a draw­ing by A Heil­born.

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