Country diary: adders find their place in the Scottish sun

Aigas, Highlands: Emerging from hibernation, these snakes seek out a warming rock to get energised for the hunt ahead

Warmth is what it takes, that’s all. Every spring that first burst of sun in clear skies brings our adders back to life. In common with most other reptiles the world over, Vipera berus has to warm up. They are cold-blooded and have been hibernating underground for more than six months. Their metabolism will have all but closed down. They need to fire it up again.

I once found one inside a dry-stone wall I was repairing – cold, curled and comatose. I carefully put it to one side before returning it to the depths of the wall to complete its hibernation.

With the warming soil, adders wake up and very slowly slither out to see what the new world has to offer. One assumes that they must be very hungry, but hunting for mice or voles takes action – which requires a warm-up to get the cold blood flowing. So they head for a rock in full sun. They wait until the stone has absorbed some heat and then out they come, into full view, each basking reptile gloriously happy to be warm.

So out I went one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, a day of full sun to a cheering 19C. Up on to the moor, to a large exposed rock where I have seen adders many times over many years. I knelt to feel the stone. Perfect: a deep warmth issuing to my palm. But not a snake to be seen. I walked on, keeping my jack russells, Nip and Tuck, obediently to heel. Ten minutes later Tuck growled.

There on a rock a few feet away, neatly coiled like a braided rope, head resting on the fattest coil, black eyes gleaming and bifid tongue flicking, was the most exquisite male adder I have ever seen. His long dorsal zig of pure jet zagged against a ground of pale lemon like winterkilled grass. He was magnificent. I stepped back and hauled the dogs in to my feet. He had seen us, no doubt about it, but wasn’t budging. This was his moment, his warm-up. He had waited a long time for that day.

A female adder basking in the sun.
A female adder basking in the sun. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian


John Lister-Kaye

The GuardianTramp

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