One way to get Sam, our nearly six-year-old, outdoors is to mention the word dinosaurs. In early March, we took him and three-year-old Mungo down to Hock Cliff on the banks of the River Severn to look for fossils – and OK, it wasn’t as if we stumbled across the cranium of Utahraptor poking out of the shale, but we found some pretty cool ammonites and a devils’ toenail, the 60-million-year-old (or more) ancestor of an oyster. Sam had a fair bit of fun whacking rocks with a hammer, too.
In search of Jurassic Park: can we clone an ammonite, Daddy?
But when we decided to take the boys on an adder hunt (‘Snake’ is one of the trio of characters Little Brown Mouse encounters in The Gruffalo), I felt a little nervous. Not because adders are dangerous snakes, but because I thought Sam might feel they were rather mundane compared to Velociraptor.
So, I played the dinosaur card. “Hey, Sam, on Saturday, we’re going to look for some snakes called adders, which were around with the dinosaurs,” I said. A bit of an exaggeration of the truth, I admit, though snakes did evolve more than 100 million years ago – it’s just that adders didn’t.
“Wow! Cool!” came the frankly unexpected response. Game on.
We drove up to a tiny wooded valley on the edge of Bewdley in Worcestershire and in the heart of the Wyre Forest, and here we met Sylvia Sheldon, a woman who’s been studying the forest’s adders for the past 30 years. At her National Trust property that resembled a place that Hansel and Gretel would have felt at home, we watched great tits and a surprisingly sweet rat from her kitchen window, while the boys nibbled at their sandwiches at just after 10 in the morning.
Sylvia took us up to one of her study sites, where she hoped we’d find adders basking in the spring sunshine. It was an expanse of open heathland, with some scattered silver birch trees, but largely blanketed in dead bracken in late March. We’d barely gone 10 yards from the car when Sylvia pointed out a long-dead tree trunk. “There’s normally a lizard here,” she said.
We stared for 30 seconds or so, and suddenly there it was. A small brown-green lizard with parallel rows of spots studding its back like tiny jewels, perfect in every way. Sam – once he’d managed to locate the beast, which can be difficult to make out against a brown background – was entranced. Perhaps to him it looked like a mini Ankylosaurus, albeit without the massive club-tail.
A common lizard doing its best to resemble Ankylosaurus.
We walked another 20 yards, and Sylvia pointed to some dead bracken around a the base of a tree. “There we go,” she said. “There’s two,” said her partner and fellow adder enthusiast, Chris.
If I’d considered the lizard well-camouflaged, it was nothing compared to the adders. I couldn’t see them initially, and Sam certainly couldn’t, and he was tramping around the spot where Sylvia and Chris were pointing as if we’d said there were some chocolate goodies hidden there. While I did, I know, say that adders aren’t dangerous, that wouldn’t have held a lot of sway with Sam’s mother, Louise, if we’d returned from our reptile foray with a puncture wound in his arm and the remark, “It’s OK, there were only 14 deaths from adder bites in the past 100 years, and children recover quicker than adults!”
It’s surprisingly hard to describe the location of a brown snake (with darker brown chevrons or diamonds running along its back) when set against a background of dry, dead, brown bracken and dry, dead brown leaves, even when it’s only a few feet away. “Do you see that stump? Now, can you see a small branch? Now, there are some dead leaves…”
“Where are you going to, Little Brown Mouse? Come for a feast in my brackeny house.”
Sam saw it eventually – Louise had taken Mungo away, as he was rampaging around and likely to scare any basking adder – and moved onto to another tree. We found one more adder and several slow worms – a shinier, more coppery colour than adders, but even they don’t exactly announce their presence to the world.
Sam was losing interest at this point, and was keen to get back to the lizard which had captivated him in a way that the adders hadn’t. I can only assume that an animal with legs is more akin to a dinosaur than one without. Four legs good, no legs just a bit on the dull side. Not sure where two legs would have come in, but George Orwell would have approved.
Sylvia and Sam’s Wild Adventure: OK, they didn’t find Stegosaurus, but three adders, several slow worms and a lizard felt like a decent return for a morning’s work.