Fear or Respect? What should we teach our children….


Full Screen Image – European Adders, Skye, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The Adder is Scotland’s only resident snake, its bite is poisonous but although very painful and capable of causing local damage, it should not be a risk to life in a healthy adult or child old enough to be out and come into contact with them. There are rare fatalities from adder bites in the UK, and each is of course a tragedy to all concerned, but there are very, very few. More people die from extreme reactions to bee stings and there are only a tiny number of those as well. There does not seem to be a case of a death from an Adder bite in more than twenty years. Adders are not aggressive, when people do get bitten it is almost always the result of the snake feeling threatened and trying to get away. One thing that should always be left to an expert is to pick them up and handle them. The normal response to people for an Adder is to leave quietly and slip away. Even when they do bite, an estimated 70% are what is called ‘dry’ which means that no or little venom is injected.

Despite their cautious nature and the genuinely low risks from Adders, they are often not well regarded in Scotland and unfortunately there are still frequent instances when they are found killed. This is illegal, they are a protected species by law, and wrong, we have very little to fear from them. Nevertheless, fear of serpents goes back to early history in Scotland with depictions in carvings made by the Picts which then seem to have been incorporated into later Christian iconography. Not surprisingly, there are numerous beliefs and stories on record in Scotland about adders, most of them very negative, in circulation right up to 1900 and even after that.

So what we should teach the next generation is to respect the Adder as a native species and part of the environment here and to treat them with respect, which is the best way to stay safe. The question which is often raised though is whether our attitudes are and even need to be taught, or whether we are born with an instinct to fear the serpent, a gift from our ancestors, right back to the beginnings of human history and from a different time and place where snakes were a very real life threatening risk. It is often said that our fear of snakes is just that, instinct. New research suggest otherwise. A paper in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology concludes that fear of snakes is more learned than ingrained in our consciousness;

Do infants find snakes aversive? Infants’ physiological responses to “fear-relevant” stimuli

The scientists found that although snakes certainly got the attention of babies and infants, more than most other animals, fear has to be learned. The hard-wired bit is to be very aware of the snake meaning we are predisposed to learning how we should react to it. What we learn comes from our families and our society. Perhaps in modern day Scotland that really should be respect far more than fear.

Just in case anyone is thinking “that’s all very well for him, he’s used to going out and seeing animals like that, it’s not the same for most of us” that’s not actually the case. When I became a professional photographer in the 1980’s and decided to include wildlife in what I did, I knew I had a problem. I hated and was very fearful of snakes but I knew, with where I hoped to go, I was going to be meeting some. I actually made myself go and come into contact with them starting in the Reptile House in London Zoo, I didn’t even like to be close to them and worked up from there. They are still not my favourite animals but I have learned to be in the same place as they are, to know respect really is much better than to be afraid even if it is hard to do.



Full Screen Image – European Adder, Skye, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Scotland’s Reptiles and Amphibians gallery

European Adder – Vipera berus