Adder man – Chris Monk on his dedication to protecting venomous snakes

Chris Monk has been helping protect the British adder (Vipera berus) for many years. As well as being Britain's only venomous snake, it is also the most northerly distributed one. Unfortunately populations are in decline, but important progress is being made.

OPAL caught up with Chris to talk about his work with this well-known reptile and ask if there are any ways we can help protect it too.


An adder. Photo © Carl Corbidge

When did you first become interested in adders?

Not until 2005. I’ve had an interest in rivers and ponds since I was young, and this developed into an interest in amphibians. I got involved in many amphibian surveys, particularly for great crested newts.

This meant I attended various meetings and conferences where reptiles were also discussed, so I learnt a bit about them.

What do you find so special about adders?

Adders are such a charismatic species when you observe them and one of the easiest of the British reptiles to study.

What work/activities with adders do you do?

I organise annual monitoring of the local adder populations so that over the long term we can assess whether the populations are stable. This helps us study the effects of land use change on the snakes, and highlight the key areas for hibernation, feeding and breeding so that they can be protected.

There is also some national genetic research being carried out on adders to study the problems of isolated populations and whether they are affected by factors such as in-breeding. A small project in Derbyshire took DNA samples from adders when they emerge from hibernation and I assisted the research scientist by guiding him to the hibernation sites.

This research will show how faithful adders are to their hibernation sites, whether snakes from adjacent sites are mixing and whether there are barriers between neighbouring groups of snakes that prevent intermingling.

I also follow up all sightings of adders that are reported to us to check whether they are really adders or mis-identifications of Grass Snakes or Slow-worms.

Why do you think it’s important for other people to learn more about adders?

The public seem to have more misconceptions about adders than almost any other species in this country. The more people know about adders, the better they will understand the species and the more likely they will be to conserve its habitat.

Although they are now protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act, we still need to use education to overturn the prejudices of generations.

A coiled adder. Photo © Tracy Farrer

What type of habitats are good for people to spot adders in?

Adders prefer relatively wild or lightly managed habitats, where there is plenty of ground cover but also open areas for basking, and not too far from hibernation sites that are free from frost, flooding or excessive dampness.

As well as heaths and moorland, adders can also be found in woodland, especially those with large, open glades and rides, and with plenty of edge habitats.

In some parts of the country they are mostly found in rough grassland, including areas such as embankments alongside railway lines or in churchyards. Generally in these situations they prefer more free-draining soils and avoid heavy clay lands.

What’s your most memorable adder moment?

One spring, I was surveying adders and found a group of males trying to locate the scent of a female. I stood absolutely still and they completely ignored me as they slid past my feet with one even taking a short-cut over my boots.

What are the main threats facing adders at the moment?

Adder populations are in decline, particularly in the South East and Midlands. It is thought this is mainly due to habitat loss from building development and land management – whether for agriculture, or in some cases, to conserve other species or habitats.

This is leading to increasing isolation of populations, making them more likely to die out.

What can people do to help increase adder numbers in the future?

If you see an adder, you should report it to a biological record centre, wildlife trust or similar organisation. This is important so adders can be taken into consideration when planning land management.

If people are interested in finding out more about adders or working with them, what would you advise them to do?

Amphibian and Reptile Conservation have some great information on their website, including how you can learn more about snakes and assist in campaigns to protect them. You can also join your local county amphibian and reptile Group, as quite a few of them carry out work to conserve snakes and their habitat.