Dr Phil Wheeler has been studying adders in Dalby
Dr Phil Wheeler, of Hull University, is particularly interested in how British wildlife uses landscapes that are also used by people, such as farmland or commercial forestry. He’s been studying how adders live in Dalby Forest in the North York Moors National Park. He thinks that such studies are valuable, he says, “Because having a diversity of species enriches people’s lives – especially species that are charismatic and striking, with myths, legends and culture around them – as snakes do.”
So, is there anything the public do anything to help adders to survive? He says, “The most important thing is to not disturb them if you find them. If – and it’s very unlikely – you come across a hibernaculum, for instance if moving logs or boulders, then replace them and consider not doing what you were doing.”
He adds, “Large development schemes, with potential to destroy large adder populations have mitigations – they move them to new sites and build a new hibernaculum.”
Adders are famously Britain’s only poisonous snake, and Phil says, “Bites can kill people. They can be serious, but are extremely rare, and usually happen when people have interfered with the snake.”
“To avoid getting bitten, the best thing to do is to look BUT DON’T TOUCH. If you see them, admire from a distance. But there’s very little prospect that you’ll be attacked unless you’ve done something to provoke it. If you’re running barefoot across the moors, just be aware. You’re more likely to get cut by broken glass or barbed wire than adders. They do hiss sometimes at people, if they feel their personal space is threatened. It’s a message to step away.”
“Most often if people see them, the snake will be moving away, or across a path – pretty quickly.”
His studies in Dalby were encouraging for the snakes. He says, “Probably a few of the things the forestry commission already does are, by chance, good for adders. They put in rides and fire breaks, and these provide adders with routes to travel between different forest areas.”
He explains that this is vital because the adders favour small areas of the forest that are recently planted with trees, where many other plants and grasses can grow in between the young trees. As the trees grow, their branches increasingly shade the ground, and fewer other plants can grow beneath them. Once the tree canopy closes overhead, the habitat is unsuitable for the snakes.
So Phil found that there are pockets of adders living in the young plantation areas, but says that if these populations are isolated, they are at risk of dying out, due to a small gene pool. If the adders can travel between areas, they potentially have a much wider gene pool, and so a more resilient population. It works for other species too, and, says Phil, “It’s called ‘landscape connectivity’ – a route to move between habitats.”
Read more about Phil’s researches in Countryman Magazine, out now.