Snakebites on the rise in the UK: Which species are native and are they venomous?

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Snakes are excellent escape artists, says the RSPCA (RSPCA/ PA) (PA Media)
Snakes are excellent escape artists, says the RSPCA (RSPCA/ PA) (PA Media)

The number of snakebites in the UK has “soared” in recent years, doctors are warning.

In the last 11 years, medics have treated 300 victims of snake bites. 72 of the patients were teenagers or children, and 13 were under the age of five.

Most of those bitten make a swift recovery, but some had to be treated in intesive care.

One patient needed part of their finger amputated, and another man died. He was a reptile conservationist, who’d been bitten by a king cobra - the world’s most venomous snake.

Here’s everything you need to know about the UK’s snake population, and why snake bites are on the rise.

Why are snake bites on the rise in the UK?

In a new study published in Clinical Toxicology, researchers logged 321 exotic snakebites from 68 different species between 2009 and 2020.

This was more frequent than previously recorded by the UK National Poisons Information Service between 2004 and 2010, they say, although bites are still uncommon.

Of the 321 exotic snakebites in 300 patients:

  • 207 of bites occurred in males – and 10 people were bitten on more than one occasion.

  • 72 of bites occurred in children – 13 of whom were aged five or under.

  • 184 of bites were inflicted by snakes of the family Colubridae, including hognose snakes, king snakes and false water cobras.

  • 30 of bites were by Viperidae species, including western diamondback rattlesnakes and copperheads.

  • 14 of bites were by Elapidae species – most commonly by Indian cobras, monocled cobras and king cobras.

One of the study authors, Prof David Warrell from Oxford University, said: “Most of these bites occur to fingers, hands and wrists following deliberate handling interaction by people who keep snakes as part of their occupation or hobby.”

“People keeping venomous ones should be careful and have a mitigation plan in place for if they are bitten,” said Prof Casewell. He added that native adder bites in the UK were extremely rare.

“You can find adders in some coastal areas - parts of the south-east, north Wales and the Yorkshire moors. Most snakes are not aggressive. You would have to be quite unfortunate to be bitten.

“Very occasionally someone might step on one and get bitten. Or they might pick one up not realising it’s an adder. The NHS has access to different antivenoms for these rare emergencies.”

What snakes are native to the UK and are they venemous?

The UK has three native snake species - the adder, the grass snake and the smooth snake. Only the adder is venomous.

But Patrick says, “Generally speaking with the adder, you’re not going to die from a bite.

“The bites tend to occur on the feet and ankles because people are exploring woodlands or heathland habitats and disturb them whilst walking. It’s a defence mechanism - they’re not going to come out and attack humans just for the sake of it.”

Some people may be bitten on the hand, but this is easily avoided by not picking up live snakes.

How can I identify the the UK’s native snakes?

British snakes are usually solitary, shy animals that prefer to flee than fight. Adders are mainly found on heathlands, commons and woodland. More bites occur in the summer as British snakes hibernate through winter, when people are also less active and wearing heavier clothing and footwear.

Adder - The adder is a greyish snake, with a dark and very distinct zig-zag pattern down its back, and a red eye. Adders are small, around 60 to 80cm and are mostly likely to be spotted in woodland, heathland and moorland habitat.

Grass snake - The grass snake is usually greenish in colour - although this can vary. They have a yellow and black collar, pale belly, and dark markings down the sides. They are our longest snake and can grow up to 150 cm.

Smooth snake - Similar in appearance to the adder, the smooth snake can be distinguished by its more slender body, round pupil and less well-formed dark pattern on its back. It is usually grey or dark brown in colour and around 60-70 cm in length. The rare smooth snake can only be found at a few heathland sites in the UK.

What do you do if you identify a snake?

If you stumble across a native British snake in your garden or the wild, it’s best to leave them undisturbed. There’s no need to get in contact with us unless the snake appears to be injured or wounded.

If you find a non-native species of snake, you can ring the RSPCA helpline on 0300 1234 999.

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