It was in the early 1980s, while competing in the annual Ten Tors Challenge on Dartmoor, when I encountered my first adder. It was spotted by one of my team mates as we trudged between Tors, weighed down by our rucksacks and the water that had soaked into our non-synthetic boots and clothes following yet another wrong turning through a sphagnum bog. It was a small male, no more than a foot in length, suspended in a tussock of grass. I was immediately captivated by its bold markings, brooding ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ expression and those vivid red, dragon-like eyes, with their vertical pupils.
As the rest of my team gave it a very wide berth, I crouched and stared in wonder, hardly able to tear myself away, before remembering my duties as navigator and the need to keep up the good pace we had been setting. I was puzzled by the reaction of the rest of my team, who earlier had paused next to, and approached in awe, an unexploded mortar that had probably strayed from a nearby firing range. As they had crouched and stared, I had given it a wide berth. Make of this what you will.
Almost 30 years later that stunning creature remained the only adder I had seen. Then last year I had a call from my brother Rob. ‘Adders! I’m surrounded by adders!’ Following a tip-off from a nature reserve warden he had tracked down a population on the Cotswold escarpment and was looking at a gathering of males, freshly emerged from their winter hiding (the females venture out a little later in the spring). I was eager to get some of the action, but it wasn’t until a few weeks later that we met up, sons in tow, to venture up to another known adder hotspot. It didn’t take long for my nephew to discover a freshly sloughed skin snagged on the stem of a gorse bush, and a few minutes later Rob spotted him. An immaculate male, much like the one I had encountered all those years ago, though a little larger, with his fresh new skin gleaming in the spring sunshine, and black velvet zigzag markings tipped with gold.
This time there was no pressure to move on. We had found each other again and nothing was going to stop me from taking it all in. I wriggled up to him on my belly, snake like, to avoid casting a shadow, and with my camera resting on a small beanbag approached very slowly to within a few inches. Rob and the boys stood back and allowed us to get acquainted.
Since that day I have been hooked (though living in Oxfordshire has made it hard to get my fix, with the nearest adders almost an hour’s drive away). With spring kicking off again, I had the inevitable call from Rob last week. ‘They’re out again. When can you come over?’ I was stuck at work, sat at my desk; the computer was about as welcome as an unexploded mortar. I just had to get out.
© Patrick Fox (2010)