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PETER FROST gets a real surprise on a walk on the North Norfolk coast and discovers this is the year of the Snake.

 I always try to get up to the North Norfolk Coast in winter.

If you are lucky enough to get one of those crisp bright winter days as we did a week or so ago then there is no finer place on earth to blow away the winter cobwebs.

You will share the coast with thousands of winter birds with a few real surprise visitors and rarities.

My biggest surprise however wasn’t a bird. It was more snakes than I have ever seen at this time of year.

Adders are often spotted surprisingly early in the year.

They are often seen in January or February on sunny days when the winter sun warms patches on the sandy paths and the adders emerge from their winter hibernation to bask.

My wife Ann pointed out 2013 is the Chinese year of the snake and suggested that was why there were so many this winter.

The Adder is our commonest snake and sadly our most misunderstood.

It is the only native venomous snake in Britain.

Adult males are rarely over two feet long, females might be a few inches longer but reports of adder sightings will often claim they are twice this long. Five and six foot claims are not unknown.

Most adders are distinctively marked with a dark zigzag running down the length of the spine and an inverted ‘V’ shape on the neck.

Males are generally white or pale grey with a black zigzag. Females are a pale brown colour, with a darker brown zigzag.

A few are entirely black and are sometimes mistaken for exotic escaped snakes.

Adders are not aggressive animals. They will only bite as a last means of defence, usually if caught, cornered or trodden on.

No one has died from adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. Only 14 deaths in the last century – fifty times more people die from bee and wasp stings.

With proper treatment, the worst effects of an adder bite are nausea and drowsiness, followed by nasty swelling and bruising in the area of the bite.

Most people who are bitten were picking up the snake. Treat adders with respect, leave them alone, admire them from a distance and they will do you no harm.

The best time to see them is in early spring as they emerge from their hibernation dens.

Come April, the males will have shed their dull winter skin and are keen to mate.

Males rush about looking for females and occasionally wrestling with other rival males. The snakes writhe around each other in an impressive way, often covering the ground at great speed.

This behaviour was called the Dance of the Adders and was reckoned to be a mating ritual between a male and a female. We know better now.

Following mating, females seek out a suitable place to give birth, often travelling half a mile or more.

Live births take place in late August to early September. Adders do not lay eggs. Young snakes are born live, a few inches long, they are perfectly formed miniature snakes.

During the autumn, adult snakes follow scent trails back to the hibernation site. Knots of snakes gather in sites they have used for years.

Adders usually eat small rodents, such as voles. They can also eat lizards, frogs, newts, and occasionally young birds.

A full size adult will eat very little, perhaps no more than a dozen voles in a year.

Like all snakes, adders eat their prey whole. Flexible jaw bones and ribs mean they are able to swallow large prey whole.

Young adders are threatened by a variety of predators, including birds of prey. Some are eaten by adult snakes.

Others may be killed and eaten by rats or killed by cold while in hibernation.

Adders are protected by law against being killed, injured or disturbed.

Every year, in fact, many are killed by unthinking people.

Please don’t be one of them. Adders are a handsome addition to our countryside especially in the Year of the Snake.

This article first published in the Morning Star, February 2013

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