Thursday, 16 April 2015

Snakes, Heather Burning and Ancient Woodland

Just lately I have made a few visits to an Adder (Vipera berus) hibernation site I have known about for many years.  They are a breeding population and I have kept a few occasional, but not particularly scientific records in this time.  Mainly about when they first emerge from hibernation, population numbers and whether I spot any of the young. In many ways it has become a part of my spring routine. 

The first trip was at the beginning of March, but conditions for seeing them was borderline in that it was cloudy and cold, so it was hardly a surprise when I did not spot any.   On a second trip it was sunny but still cool and I only spotted one, which was highly aggressive and began hissing and striking before I got anywhere near.  It is possible to identify individuals by their head markings, but even so I knew from his reaction this was Mr Grumpy (AKA number 2).  I grabbed a couple of shots using distraction to avoid getting bitten and left him in peace.

Number 2 (Mr Grumpy) basking with body flattened to absorb the maximum heat from the spring sunshine

A couple of weeks later with the weather now much warmer I headed back.  No Mr Grumpy this time, but instead Number 4 who is a rather more passive character, who along a smaller snake I could not identify were happily basking in the sunshine.  I was a bit too impatient in getting a pic and they soon disappeared.  I knew if I waited they would soon reappear and within a few minutes number 4, tongue flicking to taste the air, slowly emerged from his hiding place. 

Number 4, is it safe to come out?

Personalities aside, close up it is possible to tell individual apart by their head markings

He knew I was there, but by keeping myself still he seemed happy to emerge fully and then flatten his body to get the maximum heat from the sun.  I watched him for perhaps 15 minutes or so and then suddenly, without any apparent reason, he became tense and with tongue flicking coiled up in the familiar posture they adopt when they feel threatened.  Looking around I could see nothing, but a few seconds later the strong smell of burning heather reached us.   

Threat Posture

Now clearly it could have a bird, or perhaps some vibration from the numerous helicopters that were flying around at the time, but it did get me thinking about what the effect would be if this patch of heather was burned when they were basking.  Would they simply head below ground and avoid the heat, and if so would they suffocate from the smoke instead?  What if they were too far from their hibernation hole to get out of the way?

I know heather burning is highly controversial and I have listened to, and read up on the various sides of the argument relating to pollution, vegetation damage, habitat loss and the effect on wildlife.   That said I had not paid a great deal of attention to the impact of such activities on reptiles such as snakes and it was with thoughts like this rattling around in my head that I headed across to the far hillside to see the burning up close.

I never know how people will react to me taking pics, especially if they feel I may be there to present them in a bad light, which I am not, I simply want to record what I see.  So far I have not had any issues and have had several friendly conversations with various estate gamekeepers.  So much so that despite the fact I don't support any activities that kill animals as a form of entertainment, I do try to take a balanced view and avoid tarring all shooting estates with the same brush. 

Either way it's not an easy thing to do when I see the level of persecution of birds of prey, along with other predators such as stoats and of course none predators such as the mountain hare, I can tell you.

Arriving at the fire, the closest gamekeeper who was setting light to the heather gave me a friendly nod and hello so I grabbed a few shots.

This guy did not seem bothered by my presence either.

After a few minutes a bloke with a soot covered face turned up on another tractor and asked me what I was doing taking pictures as the lads might not want me too.  At this point it's probably not worth going into much detail, other than to say he did not want me taking pics and wanted to know where I was from and what I would be doing with the pics.

Despite the fact I showed him the shots I had taken and that they did not show any faces he was still very unhappy about it.  In the end I couldn't be bothered to argue, and having got a few shots anyway headed off in the direction I had come from. 

On the way back I discovered some remnants of what these moors should really be like in the form of some large old tree stumps that had eroded out of the peat.  How long ago these trees last watched over this landscape I don't know.  It could I suppose be as recent as a few hundred years ago, but then again preserved in the peat we could be talking thousands of years. Either way you can bet humans had a hand in it.

We often talk about re-wilding the landscape and to do so here would mean the return of the trees.  

There are lots of trees like this on the moor.  The altitude here is around 1,200 ft
Despite my experience today this is not meant to be an anti grouse shooting article and as I said I try to take a balanced view, because lets face it, wind turbines in upland areas also destroy vegetation and peat habitat with their concrete bases, miles of roads and other infrastructure such as pylons and substations.  You can also add a large number of bird fatalities caused by cables and blade strikes to this as well.  Not to mention the visual intrusion and the pollution created by making them. 

With regard to heather burning, I don't have any answers, but considering that adders are active at this early stage in the year and given I do actually have records and images of them captured as early as the 24th  February, the potential burning season of between ***1st October to 15th April (see edit below), does seem far too long as far as adders go.

All in all, today was a day that really made me think about our impact on the landscape and its wildlife, but most of all it did make me wonder just where will it end?

Text copyright David Forster

*** Edit 1st October to 15th April in England (See comments section)

Further Reading


  1. The burning season does not start on the 31st of August, but 1st October in England. Roger McPhail is a great authority on adders and moorlands and may be able to allay your fears or at least answer your questions. (Wildlife artist Arkholme Lancashire). You are right, everything we do has an impact on the environment. From turning on the tap to wash a car, to filling it with fuel. You list some potential negative impacts of burning, but none of the positives: it helps produce fresh vegetation for sheep and grouse - the economic drivers to keep people in the hills. It helps spread the sheep across the moors rather than concentrate in one area which can be damaging. It helps manage the wildfire fuel load i.e. breaks up the vegetation so accidental or fires set by arsonists can be managed. The management practice provides a willing and able workforce in remote areas with firefighting equipment, skill, knowledge and community network to aid the fire service put out potentially devastating wildfires. The edges and mosaic created through rotational managed burning on the moors provides varied habitat for wildlife and particularly ground nesting birds that have lost their traditional lowland breeding grounds. Those that manage the uplands are working hard on new methods to improve the functionality of the underlying peat which is the real challenge. Burning along with grazing, mowing, spraying etc is just one of the tools in very limited tool box for managing these areas. Used with an understanding of the evidence base and agreed goals for carbon storage, biodiversity, water quality and economic land uses, it is a vital component to safeguard our uplands.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment even if it is from an anonymous perspective. Thanks also for the correction regarding the burning season for England (mine came from the above PDF).

      I am aware of Roger McPhail, who from my own perspective is biased in that he supports the killing of animals for fun. I am of course biased in that I don't support people killing animals for fun. I still feel the season is too long if adder, or indeed other reptiles are in areas to be burnt. Perhaps hibernation sites should be identified and avoided altogether.

      For the record I am aware of the positive aspects of burning and grouse shooting in general. My article was based upon my own negative experience of the day and it certainly was not meant to be a fully balanced one.

      That said having lived in Teesdale all my life I do try to take something of a more balanced view regarding such things, but that also said as attitudes go, the gulf is growing exponentially for me as I hear about wildlife persecution by supporters of blood sports. For me this came to the fore when the Red Kites, which had bred successfully for years at Kinninvie were found to have been poisoned. There was of course the Marsh Harrier that was found shot near Bowes - just two of many instances across the UK.

      When things happen like that it becomes very difficult to see activities such as heather burning as being good for wildlife. In fact I am more inclined to think that any positive gains for wildlife are simply incidental to the needs of grouse shooting.


  2. Your photos are amazing!

    1. Sorry for the delay in moderating and replying Linda (been away for a couple of weeks).

      Thank you for the kind comment, it's nice to have such wonderful subjects in this area to point a camera at.