As we enter the summer holiday season, when encounters with snakes tend to peak, our Conservation Director Jim Foster comments on adder warning signs and highlights new guidance from ARC

I bought this bright yellow “Beware Adders” sign (below) from a well-known online auction site. It’s nicely produced, and arrived quickly, yet I won’t be giving it a five star review.

Adder warning signs have been a bugbear of folks working in reptile conservation for decades. The actual or implied presence of adders is still used as a pretext by some landowners to deter people. Signs are also erected for well-intentioned reasons, perhaps after an adder bite hits the news. But overall, warning signs like this surely do more harm than good. They engender fear about something that is exceedingly unlikely to happen, they don’t really help the viewer understand how to reduce the risk, and they encourage negative attitudes toward snakes. Yet some would reasonably point out that adder bites do happen – around 50-100 people are bitten each year in Britain, and it must be treated as medically serious – and so it’s understandable that some landowners may wish to inform visitors of their presence.

Rather than putting up warning signs, it’s much better to convey advice about adders, including safety tips, in a more measured way along with other information about the land in question. The manner in which the information is conveyed is crucial – it should be factual, reassuring, non-sensational, and genuinely helpful.

There are some great examples of this. Our Connecting The Dragons project, for example, is distributing informative signs to nature reserve managers. They aim to nudge people’s understanding and behaviour, gaining more supporters for adders while reducing adder bite risk. The project has also created an online video narrated by ARC’s Patrons Chris Packham and Iolo Williams.

The use of signs on adder sites is just one facet of a much wider issue – the impact of public access on amphibians and reptiles. This week ARC launches a new set of guidance on this topic, aimed at helping volunteers, site managers and land owners. We cover adder signs and more besides. ARC’s view is that there are significant benefits in encouraging people to encounter amphibians and reptiles in the wild, but we also recognise there can be risks too. There’s clearly a balance to be struck. We have reviewed the evidence for harm arising from public access, and produced some guidance based on the literature, that of our partners, volunteers and our own experience managing nature reserves. We aim to expand this based on further experience and feedback, so we would welcome your views.

Read guidance  

That there is a demand for the type of unhelpful adder sign that I bought is a reminder that much remains to be done to improve the image of snakes. The sign currently resides in the flower bed in my garden, where it causes mild amusement rather than panic. It’s puzzling why the designers decided on that particular snake image, rearing up with a “hood”. As a colleague suggested, perhaps it’s actually a warning to adders to beware of cobras?