Skylarks, the first I’ve heard this year, are serenading cloudless skies once more in their simultaneously mad yet exquisite song. Bumblebees buzz languidly over the fields while the first butterflies of the season – peacocks, red admirals, a couple of small tortoiseshells – flitter their way into your peripheral vision before settling centre stage onto sun-soaked embankments. I can start to feel the sun burning on to my skin, and rather unhealthily, I don’t care. It’s only the 10th day of March, yet it feels like the perfect Spring has already settled here in Cornwall after what seemed like an eternity of almost psychologically damaging heavy rain and ‘mizzle’.
But of all the signs of Spring our poets, composers and romantic novelists waxed lyrical over, I find it rather disappointing none of them gave merit to the re-emergence of the natural jewels I was here to find today – adders.
Stumbling upon one of these beautiful snakes curled in the bracken, it’s perfect zig-zag get up perfectly mirroring its home staring up at you with that feral and hypnotising ember eye, is one of the most rewarding sights a British naturalist can discover at this time of year – and thankfully, it was only ten minutes or so before I found one. A plump female, her toffee-gold body sprawled royally across the ground at the foot of a hedge akin to any human sunbather making the most of what little sun we get in this country.
Like any observation of elusive and sensitive wild animals, it’s important to keep a strict coda in regards to where you are and how you behave around adders. Over-excited wildlife photographers have even been cited as one of the primary factors driving disturbance at hibernacula and basking sites, given that the energy cost of constantly moving off when we come barging along when you’re still trying to build it up is dangerously high. So while the temptation to get even closer for that perfect view and photo was itching inside me, keeping a good distance from the bank and rolling each footstep as delicately as possible ensured my presence was barely registered.
Although the thing with rule books is that they are often broken, as my next adder sighting proved. Moving northwards across the reserve, the rough pasture gives way to the maritime heath that the Lizard is famous for. Following the track bisecting this there are frequently placed sheets of tin and felt – reptile refuges, or a herpetologist’s treasure chest. It was while searching for a sturdy stick to lift one with (it’s not unusual for conservationists lifting up these hideaways to be met with a disgruntled adder’s venomous bite the moment they stick their fingers underneath), that my ears picked up that unmistakable sound, like a rope being dragged through dead leaves, of an adder on the move.
Cursing myself for having spooked off an unseen individual nearby, as I looked down I found to my surprise a male adder, slightly slimmer than the ladies and as silver as polished steel, actually slithering lithely towards me. Upon reaching his basking spot a couple of feet from where I was, he curved himself neatly around a mat of brambles and withered grass, leaving me in a state of amazement as I gawped for several minutes at the sight of him, followed by meticulous mental planning as to how I was going to move away without scaring him back off the way he came. Moving backwards as softly as my boots would allow, the adder was still more concerned with warming up his body temperature for the day, and even allowed me to take some half-decent shots.
The whole site is a herpetologist’s dream, and along the same track that I saw this adder, a common lizard scuffled away beneath a small shrub of gorse, and slow worms coiled themselves tightly like thick, amber spaghetti under one of the tin refuges. Turning back onto the heath, it’s not long before you come across a huge, shallow and sandy pond, and peering into the sun-lit water’s edge is like entering an amphibian sweet shop.
With every footfall there appears a palmate newt, minute and almost mistakable for small fish as they dart across the pond bed. In the aquatic jungles of parrot’s feather, the common toads, pumped up and horny, take centre stage. I counted two females who were subject to the amorous of attentions of a further half dozen or so suitors, though unlike the sometimes lethal orgies of I have observed of common frogs in my own garden pond, the toads seem somewhat more dignified: The girls each had one male attached in the amplexus grip, while the others dallied around the periphery like fidgety commuters waiting for a late train. Already you could see their strings of spawn, like jelly-encased necklaces of black pearls, tastefully adorning their breeding grounds.
Especially when compared to what you find on the European continent, Britain has a rather pitiful diversity of reptiles and amphibians; yet what we do have is fascinating, beautiful and charismatic at the species level. To see it all wake up again in Spring is a wildlife ritual to be treasured, especially given the fact they’re one of our most vulnerable taxa – isolation from continual habitat loss is a worsening threat for most of our reptiles (especially the adder), and diseases from rana virus to chyrtid fungus have ravaged amphibian populations globally, and are certainly not unheard of on our shores.
So as I saw a further two adders walking back to the car, time seemed to drift away as I stood back to appreciate them . Next time you think about the signs of Spring, spare a thought for the glorious return of our scaly neighbours alongside lambs, daffodils and swallows.