Bill Shaw – Ecology and Conservation Land Management Adviser
On one of the many lovely warm days this summer I was looking for signs of water vole along the marshy banks of a stream on the moorland plateau, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Looking round I saw it was a small, delicate frog hopping over the moss. Only about 1cm long it must have been one of this year’s youngsters.
Then I began to think about how often it is that most people’s encounters with wildlife are down to pure chance, and how exhilarating this can be.
I grew up in York and went on many walks with family and friends over the nearby North York Moors. Like many people who tramp the Moors regularly, I’ll never forget my first adder encounter as a child. I was running through the knee high heather when I suddenly stumbled across a large flat rock. On it, for a fleeting second, was a massive (to me!) brown zigzag patterned snake. Never having seen a real, live snake before I was amazed, and then rather sad when it slithered off into the heather and out of sight. Perhaps this was the beginning of my fascination with reptiles and amphibians.
I learnt later that this is typical adder behaviour – basking out in the open but darting off quickly at the first hint of danger. The individual I saw was a female; males typically are off-white with a black zigzag. The North York Moors provides a lot of excellent habitat for adders (Vipera berus) and we are lucky enough to still have good populations of this reptile.
Spring and autumn is when they are most often encountered, basking in the sun near their hibernation sites, which are often communal. Before breeding, males sometimes engage in a ritualised form of combat known as the ‘Dance of the Adders’ to decide who is going to mate with a female (see YouTube to see some fantastic footage). The young are born live in clutches of about ten during August and start hunting straight away. Their main prey is small mammals which they immobilise with a bite which injects a lethal dose of venom.
One of the great things about these chance encounters with wildlife is that it’s a win win situation – the more time you spend out and about in the countryside, the more chance you have of witnessing something special.