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