A Quiz Question for you: who was Prime Minister when the last person died of an adder bite in the UK?
Until one group of them were domesticated into dogs, pack animals would historically face, and accelerate, their own approaching death by detaching themselves from the pack and lying somewhere quiet until death took them. A metaphorical turning of the face to the wall, and then silence.
I watched my number one Jack Russell trying to do this early last week after being bitten full on the jaw by an adder, and it was only (amongst other things) £500 of anti-venom and arriving home from ‘hospital’ to compete once again with her son that saved her. Humans talk about people ‘fighting for their lives’ when they are very ill; with Millie, I had no sense of that fight. Instead, for about 48 hours, I had the sense of a dog that simply accepted her time had run out, and just wanted to be left alone.
She has dedicated her 13 years to the relentless pursuit of snakes and squirrels, in that order, which makes it surprising that she is here at all, still less so that she is is now, happily, back to normal, and as wilful and independent as ever. ‘A mere flesh wound,’ she might have said, “lead me back to the battle field’.
Before this year, the last time we had seen adders in the paddock was 25 years ago, the day Tom was born, and on that occasion one of them bit my moth-eaten Glen of Imaal Terrier, Paddy, who was slightly forced by our circumstances to get on with surviving whilst Tom was getting on with being born fifteen miles down the road. But this spring, they have started to appear everywhere, and they seem to be making up for lost time.
According to the newsletter of Phys-Org, 90% of all UK adder populations are declining, and as many as 30% of them have disappeared since 2010, leading to a probable extinction by around 2032. Not that Millie would give a toss, but adders have been relentlessly whittled down by human (and canine) disturbance and interference, by sileage making, mowing and over-grazing, to the point that they are dipping below a recovery level. Like another pet subject of mine, curlews, they are an indicator species, in that their own welfare tends to point to the welfare of many other species that inhabit the same habitat. So they matter.
Seeing my little dog try to die, I wanted to abandon all my conservation credentials, and do my irrational bit to accelerate the process of adder extinctions. In fact, I was prevented from going illegally into the paddock with a strimmer for that purpose by Caroline who pointed out that correctly, that I couldn’t have it both ways. You either buy the whole biodiversity argument, or none of it. Millie, by the way, buys none of it. She simply feels that she was put on earth to keep the workplace free of animals she thinks are more annoying than her.
Eventually, I found the snake in a close mown bit of the field a couple of days later, long, thick and very dead. I imagine that Millie had found it in open ground before it had time to go into cover, and had attacked and killed it. But the business end of thirty inches of writhing muscle is a hard one to control with just your mouth, and the adder’s last conscious action was to inject about 10 milligrams of venom with its two back-facing fangs into a small, elderly dog.
The answer to the question about human fatalities, by the way, is Harold Wilson. It was in May 1975.
Adders probably need a break.
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