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Review by Jim Foster, Conservation Director, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation 

The Secret Life of the Adder: The Vanishing Viper.
Nicholas Milton. 2022.
White Owl, Barnsley (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd).
ISBN:‎ 9781399018166 (hard cover).
168 pages.
Recommended Retail Price £25.00.

The adder, one of Britain’s three native snakes, needs as many friends as possible. Like most snakes it is saddled with a public image problem, and being venomous just makes things worse. Happily, Nicholas Milton is a firm friend of the adder, and moreover, an especially eloquent one. Indeed, the author’s unbridled affection for this misunderstood reptile leaps (slithers?) off every page of this thoroughly engaging book.

The book is admirable as a general primer in adder biology and ecology, though as mentioned below there is some room for improvement in a second edition. The essentials of adder life history are explained in a single chapter and supported by comments elsewhere in the book. The text throughout seems pitched at those with a general interest in wildlife, and the lively prose style and lack of jargon combine to make it an enjoyable read. Indeed I suspect that such is the author’s turn of phrase, it would appeal beyond the “wildlife enthusiast” audience. The personal asides and comments about other authors’ lives add colour without becoming too discursive. A good example is the background on Gerald Leighton, whose “The Life History of British Serpents” (1901) is a must-read for any reptile enthusiast. The author also does a good job of pointing out where some of the older heavyweight sources stray from fact into fancy. In Leighton’s case, he steadfastly believed that there were in fact two species of adder in Britain, one of which was the “small red viper” (in fact, these are simply young adders). Even at the time this was not taken seriously, and it is difficult for the modern-day reader to reconcile Leighton’s many apposite observations with his fixation on demonstrating that the small red viper is “… as distinct from the ordinary adder as a swallow is from a martin…” Milton commendably puts that misjudgement in context, and I was especially taken by his comments on the value to today’s conservationists of Leighton’s descriptions of adder distribution just over a century ago.

Stepping aside from biology, there is a substantial chapter discussing the adder’s place in history and culture. It would have been easy to explore a few well-trodden themes and texts here, yet the author digs deeper, furnishing the reader with a trove of fascinating adder lore. Hence as well as the familiar lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we hear about bizarre treatments for adder bite that now sound rather fanciful. He brings these quotes and images to life with useful descriptions that set them in a historical context, while commenting on their biological basis (or indeed the lack thereof). At times I found the cultural references blurred the line between adder-specific references and those to snakes in general, but this is excusable, especially given the challenges of interpreting some sources.

Later in the book the author casts a sceptical eye on the treatment of adders in the media. He demonstrates with headlines and quotes how newspapers in particular run scaremongering stories with scant regard for factual accuracy. It is pleasing, however, that he notes a general shift in public attitudes toward snakes, and observes that in recent years there has been some coverage on the plight of Britain’s adders.

The worrying status of the adder is the book’s central theme, and a welcome one. By outlining studies on adder numbers and describing the various threats, the author paints a compelling picture of a species in trouble. Readers will likely take way the message that adders are threatened by a motley cocktail of hazards, rather than a single pervasive threat, and that seems a fair reading of a rather depressing situation. I would have preferred to read more about two particular drivers of decline - untargeted habitat management, and a lack of management leading to overgrown sites. However, that is a minor quibble and the threats are generally well explained here.

The book concludes with a ten point plan to restore adders to their former glory. There is much to commend here, including a focus on improving the public image of adders, acting on misleading media stories, and the need to enhance farmland. However, I felt this section could have been more cohesive. For instance, the suggestions about encouraging more people to like and encounter adders are well made, but they would be counteracted by the proposal to ban dogs from all adder sites; that would surely alienate a sizeable number of landowners and the public with debateable benefit. I would like to have seen more exploration of the underlying causes for decline, and why adders are doing remarkably well in some areas. Such a synthesis could help generate a more persuasive campaign for action.

I felt that the book could have benefitted from more thorough fact checking. Being a popular science book it is unusual but laudable that research sources are cited, yet this has not been consistently applied. In some cases I found myself querying whether an unreferenced comment had robust evidence to back it up, while some comments seem to over-generalise from particular studies. For example, is it really the case that most female adders only breed from the age of eight? (p85.) Whilst those are matters of interpretation, a number of clear technical mistakes should not have made it to print. These include adders being “fully protected” (they are currently only partially protected, though that may change in future); references to snakes unhinging their jaws (an urban myth); and muddled references to conservation policy such as the UK Biodiversity Action Plan enshrining a species target in law (the UK BAP went extinct a decade ago and never had a legal mandate – I suspect the author in fact means the Environment Act 2021).

The book is generously illustrated, with many excellent photographs by Rodger McPhail illuminating the text (though his name is misspelt throughout the photo credits). Reproductions of historical texts and images are generally used to good effect. In some cases they felt rather superfluous; the title page to Gilbert White’s magnum opus, reproduced on p 27, could have been replaced with something more obviously adder-related, for instance.

Yet these oversights do not detract from the success of the book in vividly describing the dire straits that adders find themselves in. As a clarion call for action, it does the job extremely well. The author’s skilful blending of cultural perspectives, biology and conservation is a winning combination. The book’s foreword, by the television presenter and ARC patron Iolo Williams, underscores the need for adder advocates. I am sure this book will help recruit more people to the cause.