Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We're overcoming a poisonous prejudice

A A A

Deep in our tissues lurks a forgotten emotion, forgotten because most of us no longer need it. It is a terrified fascination with our predators – animals whose prey we might be. It is clearly an ancient emotion, and it is clearly potent, and its existence was brilliantly illuminated and tapped into by Steven Spielberg when he directed Jaws in 1975 – creating at the age of 29 what was then the most profitable movie ever made.

Spielberg made our ancient fear of predators manifest, for the first time, to a mass audience. Cinema-goers had not really been scared – I mean scared right down in those tissues – by King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, as these were obvious fantasy creatures. But a killer fish – a great white shark, seen in screen-filling close-up, sinking its great white teeth into holiday swimmers off the coast of Long Island? That was only too real.

Such is Hollywood's power that Jaws fixed the fear of killer sharks in the imagination of the world for a whole generation (the movie grossed nearly half a billion dollars). But unlike our instinctive fear of predators, our fear of sharks is learned. You learn it from your local Odeon, from your DVD player, or from news reports. The fear of snakes is a different matter.

There is considerable evidence that the fear of snakes is inherent in us as in other primates – that human children, and baby chimpanzees, for example, instinctively identify snakes as threatening without having seen them before. You can perhaps understand why: the figures for death from snakebite in modern-day India suggest that between 10,000 and 15,000 people are killed every year by creatures such as the Indian cobra, Russell's viper and the saw-scaled viper, with tens of thousands more being bitten but surviving. It is obviously the case that in some parts of the world, living with snakes in the grass presents a real risk to your life, and did so even more throughout thousands of generations of human evolution.

As a consequence, snake-fright seems to be one of the biggest fears we are born with, along with the similar fear of spiders, and maybe a few other apprehensions, like fear of the dark. And in this context, I was fascinated to learn that Natural England, the Government's wildlife agency, has just embarked on an exercise to improve the health of Britain's adder population.

The adder is our only venomous snake. It is capable of killing an adult human with its venom, although there have only been 14 deaths recorded since 1876 – the last of which was the death a five-year-old child in Perthshire in 1975. Between fifty and 100 people are bitten each year when they accidentally tread on adders or try to pick them up, with about a quarter of these instances resulting in hospital treatment. But for all that, it is the adder itself which is at risk.

In the last decade, Natural England says, Vipera berus has slipped into a decline, largely because fragmentation of its habitat is isolating populations which then begin inbreeding; it is thought that a third of remaining adder populations may comprise fewer than ten adult snakes. So this summer the agency will be surveying adders across England for genetic diversity, and may end up transplanting adders from spots where diversity is high to spots where diversity is low.

It may seem counter-intuitive to say so, but I found the news that the Government intends to spread poisonous snakes around the country to be heartening. It is perhaps the best possible example of how far we have come from our own poisonous prejudices, which once we held against most of the natural world – prejudices that prompted us to eliminate not only creatures that might harm us, but any creature deemed to be in competition with our interests, and that led to the wildlife pogroms of the Tudor vermin laws. That we are now a society that can step outside our ancient fear and share the world with snakes seems to be a mark, even if a small one, of civilised advance.

And anyway, adders are a splendid addition to our impoverished fauna, as I found when I went looking for them last week, by sheer coincidence the very day before the Natural England announcement. I went with Stephen Spawls, a Norwich biology lecturer who also happens to be one of the experts on the venomous snakes of East Africa, an expertise for which he paid a price – he lost his right index finger to a bite from the puff adder he kept as a pet during his youth in Kenya.

On a Norfolk heath we found a two-foot long male adder basking in the sun. Without turning a hair, Stephen flicked it up with his "snake stick" and was suddenly holding it behind the head (on no account try this yourself). He opened its mouth with a twig and showed me its poisonous fangs and invited me to feel its sun-warmed body, before replacing it in the grass, the snake hissing indignantly.

This was something more than the tame England of bluebells and willow warblers, beloved though that is. This was standing a foot away from death (well, potentially), and I readily admit that I felt every ounce of our ancient snake-fear surging out of the tissues. But looking at the beauty of its markings, the dark zigzag down its back and the streamlined perfection of its shape, I also thought it was magnificent, and I was grateful that my country recognised there was room in the world for this creature too.



m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Property
house + home
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living