Snakes Alive

In the UK snakes aren’t exactly a primary concern as an objective danger. The only venomous snake in the UK is the adder – a form of viper recognizable by it’s zip-zag diamond stripes. Still, if you wander around the countryside enough then you will come across them from time to time. They are fairly common throughout my native Northumberland and, though shy, we have had the odd encounter. A couple of occasions stand out. One time on a hike across a moor an adder was sunning itself on the track. My wife, walking a few paces ahead of me, saw it and quickly stepped over it. I on, on the other hand, didn’t see it – at least not until I was about to step on top of its tail. “Yikes” (or possibly something stronger) I exclaimed, as I did a rapid skipping type of manoeuvre across it at the last moment. The snake, sensing its near miss, flicked it tongue, hissed, and slithered off into the heather. “How come you didn’t step on it?” I asked Jeanette. “I saw it from a couple of feet away and simply stepped over it”. “Well, why didn’t you warn me?” I squeaked back, indignantly. “I didn’t want to freak you out”. “Well, you failed miserably”.

On another occason we were climbing in Northumberland, at a sandstone crag called “Kyloe (out)”. The routes here are all short, around 30-50 feet (or 9-15m) and generally climbed as a single pitch. Except for one route which entails short bouldery clmbing onto a ledge, walking along the ledge about 8 feet, then continuing to the top via a sequence of cracks. It was a bit of a faff, but we occasionally liked to do this route to practise our multi-pitch skills (such as they were).  One nice day I started up on lead, completed the initial bouldery bit, and pulled over onto the ledge and stood up to look for a belay. I was a bit startled to see an adder basking on the ledge halfway between me and where the second pitch started. It didn’t appear inclined to move, and I didn’t fancy trying to down climb. Only course of action seemed to be to bring Jeanette up, then try and manoeuvre around it for the second pitch. This I did, “forgetting” to mention the serpentine friend we were sharing the climb with. Fortunately, when she got established on the ledge, the snake decided it was getting a bit too busy for its liking and slithered off to find a more secluded spot.

Living in Cyprus, as my wife and myself do, means the occasional encounter with snakes. Cyprus has around 8 indigenous snake species of which 3 are poisonous, and of which only one is especially dangerous – the blunt nosed viper. A bite from this snake releases a powerful haemotoxin that destroys the red blood cells. If you get bitten, then you need to find a hospital pretty quickly. Where we live, up in the mountains, we come across them quite frequently, generally whilst walking the dogs when they might be found sunning themselves on the track or skulking in the bushes where, if we aren’t quick enough to stop them, the dogs will try to investigate them – with generally unfortunate consequences (see later).

The other most commonly observed snake in Cyprus is probably the black whip snake. This is a constrictor that grows to around 2-3m in length. They feed on small vermin and other snakes, and are generally harmless to humans (and dogs!). I recall one morning
wandering down to the open area beneath our house and disturbing a black whip snake that had captured a viper, presumably for its breakfast. The whip snake was a pretty decent sized speciman, but so was the viper – not as long as the whip snake, but a lot thicker in girth. Nevertheless, the whip snake slithered off pretty damn quick, dragging its (I imagine) reluctant prey with it, passing alarmingly close to where I was standing. It was a startling and pretty amazing thing to witness.

We’ve had a few other memorable snake encounters in Cyprus. Shortly after moving here a large whip snake dropped out of a tree under which Jeanette was standing at the time, It dropped straight on top of her. I wasn’t there at the time, but her mum (who was) says she was quite unfazed by this unexpected visitation. Pretty sure I would have run for the hills shrieking, freaked out as I tend to be by anything that scuttles or slithers for a living. On another occasion we came across an apparently dead viper in the middle of a track. Jeanette’s immediate inclination was to find a stick, move up close to it and poke it. At which point it became clear that it wasn’t so much dead as basking in the sun. It objected to this intrusion with a certain degree of bad tempered hissing, so we left it alone to work on its suntan in peace.

Our german shepherd pooch (Rosie, since departed and much missed) wasn’t immune to the charm of snakes either. One midsummer evening, whilst on our nightly communal, she was poking her head into a bush having a bit of a sniff around when she suddenly backed away – sneezing and shaking her head. She seemed OK though and we thought she’d maybe sniffed at some especially pungent herb or stuck her snout into a hedgehog (quite common where we live). However, next morning her neck had swelled up and she was having trouble breathing. An emergency vet visit diagnosed venomous snake bite (almost certainly viper). An intravenous drip of serum and a day or two later and she was fine.

The most unexpected encounter came whilst climbing. Jeanette was leading up a route at a crag in the Pentadactylos hills. She had clipped the last bolt, and was about to head up to the lower off when she (fortunately) noticed a viper sitting on a small ledge between her and the belay chain. Snakes are clearly as good (better?) climbers than we are. After a bit of a discussion we decided to leave the snake in peace and fetch the gear at end of the day when it (hopefully) had buggered off – which it had. What’s that expression, something about letting “sleeping snakes lie”?

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