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County visitors warned on possible - if rare - danger of snake bites

John Freeman
Photo: Marek Szczepanek, via WikimediaPoisons experts at the Health Protection Agency’s specialist commissioned National Poisons Information Service -- the poisons advisory body for frontline medics -- are advising people planning country and woodland walks this summer how to reduce their risk of a snake bite.

Between 2009 and 2011, the service was asked for help 196 times after patients were bitten by adders, Britain's only poisonous snake.

Calls came from all regions of England, Scotland and Wales and, while sightings of adders are rare in the our area, here were calls to the service from the North West over the period, including one from Lancaster.

Each year, the NHS says approximately 100 cases of adder bites are reported in the UK. Most bites occur between February and October, with the number of bites peaking during the summer months. (Worldwide, there are around five million snake bites every year).

Adders and non-venomous grass snakes - both species more likely to avoid you than attack you unless you disturb them - can be found in Lancashire in places such as Pendle Hill and the Trough of Bowland. In Cumbria, when the A74 was being widened in 2006, some 50 adders were moved to the Matterdale Forest near Ullswater before work began.

About half of the bites NPIS were alerted to occurred after a snake was picked up, so as the holiday season approaches NPIS, is urging anyone planning on spending time outdoors this summer to take care, respect any wildlife they come across and to leave them alone.

“Adder numbers have decreased in recent years so they are rare but still present in certain areas,” said Professor Simon Thomas, Director of NPIS Newcastle.

“They usually keep well out of sight, but in the summer months are active because the weather is warmer. Because they are well camouflaged people can accidentally tread on them, which is when they can bite. They can also bite if picked up.

“The bite can have very nasty effects, especially in smaller children – so it’s best to take care when out walking, wear appropriate footwear for the terrain and do not handle any snakes. Sometimes the venomous adder can be mistaken for non-venomous species such as the grass snake or smooth snake, making people think it is safe to pick them up.”

Snake bites do not always lead to the injection of venom into the wound. When no venom is released there is always a risk the wound may become infected but the anxiety caused to the patient is often the greatest health concern.

When an adder bite does deliver venom it can cause local pain, tenderness, swelling and bruising which can spread. If a child is bitten, effects may be seen across the whole body.

“The number of queries to us about adder poisonings have been fairly consistent over the years which would suggest people do come into contact with them,” said Professor Thomas.

“Although almost all poisonings from adder bites produce relatively minor effects the illnesses they lead to can be extremely unpleasant. And it’s worth remembering that the effects from these bites can be much more serious, though this is rare. Because of this our advice is simply to do what you can to minimise your exposure.

"Do go out and enjoy the countryside. That’s really important. But if you are going somewhere with large areas of open space, just think about what you’re doing and most importantly of all, if you come across an adder, or indeed any snake or reptile, give it the respect it deserves as a wild animal and leave it alone.”

Despite peoples' concerns over snakes, North West author Rodger McPhail, whose book The Private Life of Adders was released last year, feels the reptiles get a bad press.

During his forays into the Trough of Bowland, he has found adders beaten to death on one or two occasions, something he is keen for people to avoid.

“I’m sure people would think they are doing a public duty, or maybe they’re worried about their dogs, which you can understand,” he told the Lancashire Telegraph last year. "But adders are not that common so I think we need to do our bit to protect this beautiful creature."

• Anyone bitten by a snake should seek urgent medical attention. For more information on snake bites online, visit the NHS web site at: