If you consider the amount written about adders on Dartmoor it would be possible to imagine that the place is literally crawling with them, that is not the case anymore. There are many walkers that despite years of tramping the moors have never seen one. Occasionally someone will relate some horror story of have been bitten but even then "t'was no more'n bee sting." It is fairly common to find dog owners who have had their animals bitten, fatally in some cases and that probably is the worst. Imagine walking five miles into the moor with a dog the size of a Labrador and then having to carry it back because it had been 'stung' by an adder, on Dartmoor adders sting not bite.
One of the Dartmoor beliefs regarding adders is that if anything has been bitten by one it cannot recover until the snake is dead. Which if this occurred early in the morning could be a problem because another tradition is that an adder can't die until the sun goes down. Even if an arctic lorry flattened one in the road, that serpent is not deemed dead until the sun sets.
If a dog is bitten there are two cures, the first is to make a ring from a hazel wand and place it around the animals neck. It is also said that a cross made of hazel twigs will cure a bite if laid upon the wound. The second is to get some ash buds or tips and boil them down into a concoction and give that as a medicine. In similar vane, for any animal bitten by an adder, a collar of ash twigs should be made and placed around the victims neck. If no ash or hazel was readily available then a radish pulled on a night when the moon is nine days old will suffice, indeed if the hands are rubbed with the juice of such a raddish then no viper will ever bite. Many believed that rubbing the bite wound with a dead snake will effect a cure as will the foot of a dead owl or the straw from a swallows nest. There was also the belief that honeysuckle could act as a treatment for adder bite, anybody being bitten by such a creature should first suck the juice or nectar from the flowers and then rub the bite with its leaves. An ancient cure that was used by the old wisewomen was to apply a toad skin to the bitten area, this would then presumably draw out the poison. The toad was always regarded as being immune to adder bite and able to effect such cures. There was also the following charm that would be recited:
"Adder, Adder, Adder, Lay under a stone or hole he hath done this beast wrong. I fold, two fold, three fold, in the Name of the Father and the Son. So let this sting pass away from this wretched vermint if the Lord please, Amen."
Another cure was to hold your head over a cauldron full of elderflowers and boiling water and deeply inhale the vapours. Occasionally, the leaves from the 'shepherds dial' better known as the 'scarlet pimpernel' were rubbed over the bite to draw out the venom.
A certain way to spot and adder is to find a dragonfly, because if you see one hovering there will be an adder basking below it. Many believed that the dragonfly was put on the moor to warn mankind of presence of the poisonous snake. It was also believed that once an adder had been killed the carcass must be hung up by its tail because if ever the head and the tail touched the snake would 'come alive again'. It was also said that if a circle was drawn around the adder with an ash stick then the snake would be unable to break out of it. The plant commonly called the Cuckoo Pint is also known on Dartmoor as the Adder's Tongue. This name came around in order to keep children away from its poisonous berries, parents would tell their youngsters that the adder got his 'sting' from eating the plant. Therefore it was always best to keep away from it just in case their was a snake lurking in the nearby undergrowth.
On Dartmoor there are several place names that could be linked to the adder such as Snakey Lane (Ashburton), Snakey Pool and Snakey Island (Dunnabridge). In addition there is the tradition that Wistman's Wood was literally crawling with adders of all shapes and sizes. Baring Gould, 1983, p.182, says how the dry walls of the old Dartmoor farmhouses were ideal places for adders to hibernate. He recalls having been told by an old moorman how when the peat fire was lit and the room warmed he often saw the 'longcripples' (Dartmoor dialect) shoot out from the wall crevices and 'sway' infront of the fire. An old saying said "tez signs ov fine weather when tha longcripples scralee ( scrall - loiter) out," Hewett, 1892, p.98.
Another tradition on Dartmoor is the 'Adder Stone,' which is a priceless stone, they have been described as a smooth, bluish stones with a yellow tinge in them. They are formed when a large amount of adders congregate together purposefully with the intent of making such a stone. In 1602 Carew mentioned such as stone:
"The country people retaine a conceite that snakes breathing about a hazel wand, doe make a stone ring of blue colour, in which there appeareth the yellow figure of a snake, and that beasts that are stung, being given to drink of the water wherein this stone hath been soaked, will there through recover."
Every now and again you come across a reference to a snake-stone which if found and carried will protect the bearer from snake bite and bring good luck. Whilst researching a project on St. Hilda's Abbey at Whitby I came across the same legend only these stones were called St. Hilda's Snakestones. These are in fact ammonite fossils that have had a snakes head carved onto them. Shortly after this I found one for sale on e-bay and purchased it, but the puzzling thing is why should this tradition be held on Dartmoor because the chances of finding an ammonite fossil on the moor are virtually nil.
At one time there used to be a notice at the now long gone King Tor Halt railway station warning passengers of the dangers of Adders it said:
"IN THE INTERESTS OF GAME PRESERVATION AND FOR THEIR PROTECTION AGAINST SNAKES, ETC. DOGS SHOULD BE KEPT ON A LEAD. BY ORDER."
There was a pastime on Dartmoor called 'Snake Snacking' and it is a shame it has passed into oblivion. This was where you would catch an adder by the tail and 'cracked' it as if it where a bull whip, this would eventually break the serpents back. If however the 'snacker' was not quite quick enough they would end up with a bite which was cured by making a cross-shaped cut over the wound and applying hot tobacco ash or moist tobacco to it.
Clearly there are adders on Dartmoor and you may see one or none. They tend to occur on the upland heathlands and the many woodlands. I have seen them on Black Hill, Huntingdon Warren, Fox tor mire, Scorhill circle, and the O Brook. There is also a good variation in the colourings which vary from a very dark brown through to a sandy yellow and then an orangey red. The adder's year starts around May and goes onto October when they hibernate.
People occasionally get bitten and in general it is no worse than a beesting. The thing to remember is that they are really quite small and in an adult the only thing it could probably get its mouth over are the lower parts and extremities of a limb. The official NHS thinking is:
"If you are bitten by an adder you may not experience any symptoms at all. Often a snake will give you a dry bite containing no venom. Some people develop symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea shortly after being bitten. The area around the bite may swell up or go numb. If you develop symptoms such as paralysis, dizziness or fainting you will need medical treatment.
If you are bitten by an adder, keep the bitten area still so the venom does not travel around the body and go to A&E, where you may have anti-venom treatment.
Do not try to suck or remove the venom from the skin yourself.
Some people may try to stop the venom travelling from the bitten area by using a tight band (tourniquet) this is not recommended if you have no medical experience, as it can cause permanent damage and loss of the limb."
Which is all well and good unless you are on your own, five miles into the moor and have been bitten on the lower leg. Then there are two options - try to remain calm and slowly walk back or stay put and contact the emergency services.
A personal theory regarding people who see adders and folks that don't, is that if you hate the things, like me, then in summer you tend to watch every footstep and lo and behold - there they are. Where as if they don't worry you then possibly little attention is paid to the ground and none are spotted. I remember on one morning I was desperately looking for a certain letterbox and finally found the rock it was under, on approaching I saw a big adder laying across it. After much consideration, well 2 seconds worth, I decided to leave well alone, I now knew where the letterbox was, so it would be possible to return later in the day when the serpent had gone. By the evening I was heading back and met another walker and so we returned together. Approaching the fated rock I saw that the adder was still sprawled across it. My companion casually strolled across and with the end of his stick gently lifted the creature up. The adder hung as limp as a string of sausages, it seems that someone must have killed it and then left the thing draped over the rock for idiots like me to come along and suppose the snake was alive. It was a good job I did not sit and wait for it to slither off because, depending on the decomposition rate of an adder, I could have been there for weeks.
Just to show the tenacity of the Dartmoor adders there is one report of a farmer from near Postbridge who in the late 1990's lost three successive bulls to adder bites. All the bulls were put in the same field and all had to be put down.
Baring Gould, S. 1983, Devon, Anthony Mott Ltd, London.
Hewett, S. 1892, The Peasant Speech of Devon, Elliot & Stock, London.
If you have found this website helpful please help towards its upkeep - see HERE