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

Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth gamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game