Nor­folk Wildlife Trust:

The Bard was too harsh on many of our crea­tures, says Nor­folk Wildlife Trust evan­ge­list Nick Ach­e­son

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE -

Why the Bard got it wrong about our na­tive an­i­mals

In the sec­ond act of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, Ti­ta­nia com­mands her fairies to sing her to sleep. Their lul­laby be­gins, ‘You spot­ted snakes with dou­ble tongue; thorny hedge­hogs be not seen; newts and blind­worms do no wrong; come not near our fairy queen.’

I’m a huge fan of Shake­speare (af­ter all, ‘One touch of na­ture makes the whole world kin’) but Wil­liam, we need to talk. Your ground­less de­mon­is­ing of per­fectly won­der­ful wildlife has to end.

Let’s de­con­struct. These spot­ted snakes, who are they? Ad­ders, which, though the very rare smooth snake (not found in Nor­folk) could more ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as spot­ted, are the only wide­spread strongly pat­terned snakes in the UK.

Shake­speare has a ten­u­ous point here, in that the ad­der is our only ven­omous rep­tile. How­ever, had the bard not rolled over and played dead in the face of su­per­sti­tious anti-wildlife pro­pa­ganda, he would have known the ad­der to be a reclu­sive species which avoids hu­mans wher­ever pos­si­ble.

It em­phat­i­cally does not spend its time seek­ing fairy queens, or any­body else, with in­tent to cause harm. Just a dozen peo­ple have died of ad­der bites in the UK in the last cen­tury, and bites al­most ex­clu­sively oc­cur when peo­ple de­lib­er­ately han­dle ad­ders.

The harm in the equa­tion has un­ques­tion­ably been done by hu­mans to ad­ders. In Shake­speare’s day the ad­der was wide­spread and com­mon enough for it to be known by ev­ery mem­ber of his au­di­ence.

To­day coun­try peo­ple in the UK, even here in Nor­folk, could go a life­time with­out see­ing an ad­der. The rea­son for this change is sim­ple: the com­mons, the great heaths, the rugged mead­ows and the scrub, which are the nat­u­ral haunt of ad­ders, have van­ished, not of their own ac­cord but as a re­sult of hu­man land use change.

The few places left where ad­ders are stir­ring from hi­ber­na­tion this March, warm­ing them­selves in the weak light of the early spring sun, are our quiet com­mons and for­got­ten heaths, pre­cious places which have – mirac­u­lously – es­caped en­clo­sure, fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides, de­vel­op­ment and the plough.

But Shake­speare does not re­strict his slur to the hum­ble ad­der. Oh no, his fairies have illfeel­ing to sprin­kle on hedge­hogs, newts and slow-worms too.

These lat­ter he refers to as blind­worms, which is a triple slur. Slow-worms are en­tirely harm­less to hu­mans (in­deed as vo­ra­cious preda­tors of slugs they are pos­i­tively ben­e­fi­cial), they are not blind, and they are leg­less lizards, not worms. Check your facts Will, check your facts. What all of these won­der­ful

an­i­mals have in com­mon, apart from be­ing un­de­serv­ing re­cip­i­ents of a poet’s ire, is that they are astir in March. Ad­ders, slow-worms, hedge­hogs and the three va­ri­eties of Nor­folk newts all hi­ber­nate, and, de­pend­ing on weather over win­ter, all are likely to be emerg­ing now, their thoughts on mat­ing and young. What they also have in com­mon is that they have lost the huge ma­jor­ity of their habi­tat in Nor­folk, and the UK, since Shake­speare’s fairies so ca­su­ally bad­mouthed them.

They are all on their knees in to­day’s Nor­folk (metaphor­i­cally, of course, as ad­ders and slow­worms are a bit short on ex­ter­nal knees), pushed to the mar­gins of the land where once they were com­mon and well-known enough to be con­sid­ered a threat to doz­ing fairy queens.

At Nor­folk Wildlife Trust we are happy for fairies to kip on our re­serves, but we are not happy for hedge­hogs, slow-worms, ad­ders and newts to flicker out across the Nor­folk land­scape. We are fight­ing to keep them alive, through our projects on vil­lage com­mons, through our ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach on re­serves and in schools, through our me­dia and so­cial me­dia cam­paigns, and through our con­ser­va­tion ad­vice to landown­ers and au­thor­i­ties across the county.

And we are for­ever grate­ful to the peo­ple of Nor­folk, our mem­bers, donors and vol­un­teers, for your unswerv­ing sup­port.

To find out more about Nor­folk’s wildlife, our two year pro­ject to cel­e­brate Nor­folk’s com­mons, our land­scapescale con­ser­va­tion, or the hun­dreds of events, na­ture walks and vol­un­teer­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able, vis­it­nor­folk­wildlifetr­ust.org.uk

ABOVE:Male smooth newt

RIGHT:Ad­der (Vipera berus) bask­ing in the spring

ABOVE:A hedge­hog, un­der threat in Nor­folk BE­LOW:A slow-worm, of­ten mis­taken for a snake

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