Reptiles, from Nature in Downland
W. H. Hudson

A few notes on the reptiles of the downs will conclude this long chapter on wild life.

The common lizard is found everywhere among the gorse and heath, but is not so abundant as in suitable localities in the lowlands. Everyone is familiar with the debilitating or paralysing effect produced on rabbits and hares by a stoat when he hunts them; and we are familiar, too, with a similar weakness in the frog when pursued by a snake. But it is not known that our common little lizard suffers in the same way. I do not see how any snake, even the swift-moving smooth snake that preys almost exclusively on that creature, could ever catch lizards if they were not subject to this singular infirmity. But the lizard is not so easily overcome with terror, or hypnotised, if anyone prefers that word, as the frog; nor does he appear so weak on the high downs as I have found him on the heaths of Hampshire and Surrey. He is so alert, and quick to vanish into cover at the slightest alarm, that it is not nearly so easy to experiment with the lizard as it is with the frog. It is in fact exceedingly difficult, and fifty lizards may be found and not one will wait quietly to be experimented on. But my experience is that when a walking-stick is thrust snakewise through the grass or heath towards the basking lizard, he at once begins to suffer mysteriously in his brightness and vigour, and his efforts to escape become feebler while the hidden imaginary enemy steals after him. On the downs I found that the stick thrust towards the lizard in many instances did not produce the debilitating effect; but the little creature, instantly changing his. habits, ran quickly to and up a bush. One that I had frightened with my stick amused me by emerging on the top of a furze bush, and sitting there, high as my breast, and safe from snakes as he perhaps thought, curiously eyed me with his bright bird-like little eyes.

This then is our alert and elusive little lizard's weakness, and though I have occasionally played on it for fun during the last two or three summers, I pitied him, and was almost sorry that I had found it out.

Once only in the South Downs have I seen the lizard's worst enemy, the smooth snake. He is like the creature he pursues, alert and quick to escape, and may not be quite so rare as we imagine.

The adder is common in suitable places, on the high slopes, especially where the gorse bushes grow mixed with heath and tussocky grass. In some spots they are no doubt very numerous, as a good many sheep die of adder's bite. Occasionally a sheep is bitten in the side, and one can only suppose in such cases that the animal has lain down on a very sluggish adder basking in the sun at the side of a furze bush. But most of the victims are bitten on the nose. Sheep, I believe, have no instinctive fear of a serpent; and they are always curious about any odd-looking object they see, and will go out of their way to smell at and touch it with their nose: it is not strange that they occasionally get killed.

I see fewer adders by chance, and am less successful in finding when I look for them, here than in some favourite haunts in other southern counties, simply because I go to the downs in summer and not in early spring. Those who are familiar with the adder, and occasionally look for and find him, know that he is most easily found and oftenest seen by chance when the year is young. This is not because after his winter sleep he is still dull of sense, slow to move, and made drowsy or lethargic by the unaccustomed heat of the sun. In early spring he is on the contrary more alert, more sensitive to the earth-tremors that warn him of an approaching danger, than at any later period. It is certain, too, that the females, when heavy with young in June and July, are much less wary and quick to slip away than at other seasons.

In spring, especially in March, when winter is still in the air, the adder must find a sheltered spot looking towards the sun; and whether on a bank, or at the side of a furze or bramble bush, or on the lower part of any sloping ground, the young spring grass, or the old pale dead grass and leaves of last year, serve to show him up. Once your eye has caught and distinguished his form, it looks strangely conspicuous—a something separate from the vegetation it rests upon. He is like a richly-coloured or brightly-embroidered garter, or ribbon, dropped by chance on the pale colourless ground. Seeing him thus, looking so startlingly bright, so separate from his surroundings, one is apt to imagine that careful Mother Nature has not been so careful of her adder as she has of most of her other weak and persecuted children. At this early season the adder's only protection is his alertness and shy habit.

In summer the case is different, when in place of the young fresh grass and the pale neutral groundtints that make him so conspicuous, thare is a rough surface and a rich and various colouring; and though not invisible he is not easily distinguishable. On hot days he does not lie exposed to the sun, but prefers to rest where grasses and herbage, mixed perhaps with the feathery foliage of the lower branches of a bush, shot through and sprinkled and spotted with shifting sunlight and shadow, make up a broken picture, the numberless minute details of which you cannot see separately. If, on such a variegated ground, you are able to detect and closely regard without alarming him, you will be rewarded with a very beautiful sight. You will see that his ground-colour, whatever the precise tint may be, from pale yellow or palest brown, to a copper or terra-cotta red, assimilates to the colour of the soil, and to the stems and leaves of ripe grasses; and that the sand in the earth, the seeding grasses, and scaly coil, sparkle alike at each point where a sunbeam touches them. The zigzag band, too, fits in with the shadows, and is not easily distinguishable from the dark wavering lines and spots and blotches made by twigs and leaves that intercept the sunlight.

The adders of the downs are not so varied in colour as in the New Forest, and in most cases have a light yellowish ground-colour with an intense black mark. Some beautiful varieties are, however, to be seen. Last summer a shepherd described to me one he had killed as a very pretty creature, with a bright chestnut-red zigzag band on a whitish body.

At a dinner-table at a village in the downs where I was staying, I once found it necessary to explain to the others that it did not make me miserable to be out all day, and on most days alone, on the downs. It was, I assured them, a constant pleasure to see the beautiful creatures there—the birds, the adder, the fox, and others. After a long silence, a man sitting opposite to me said, "Excuse me, sir, but did I understand you to say that you consider the adder a beautiful creature?" I replied in the affirmative, and after another interval of silence he laid down his knife and fork and delivered himself as follows: "Well, that I can't understand. An adder is an adder, and there's no doubt about what a man feels when he sees it. I have never heard anyone till this moment say the contrary. Most people kill an adder when they find one. I don't. When I suddenly see an adder before me when I am out walking or riding, and stop still, and he gives me a look out of his eyes, and I see that he is just getting ready to fly at me, I don't stop to kill him. I'm off. You call that a beautiful creature—O Lord! The look in his eyes is quite enough for me."

This is one and a somewhat extreme view of the adder's character. But it comes nearest to the popular feeling about that creature whose power to harm us we so greatly exaggerate. Here is a case which presents us with the opposite extreme. A gentleman of Bognor, Mr. W. H. B. Fletcher, occasionally amuses himself by taming adders, which he takes with a butterfly net on the downs. He is accustomed to pick up his tame adders by the handful —six or seven at a time, all wriggling and winding round and among his open fingers; and he affirms that after an adder has been four or five days in his keeping it becomes so tame that it may be handled with impunity—by Mr. Fletcher. In fact, his serpents are of so gentle a disposition that he doubts if it would be possible to tease them into an attempt to bite him. He has shown me a collection of photographs, of his hand grasping a bunch of adders, not to be hurled in anger and with deadly effect at his enemies, but picked up simply to show what exceedingly mild and sweet-tempered creatures they are when you trust them and they are accustomed to a human hand. Now it is common knowledge that some persons possess a quality, or energy, which enables them to handle the most irritable and venomous reptiles with safety: a touch of their hand, and, in some extreme cases, their mere presence, will soothe and make them harmless. I do not say that it is so in this case. Mr. Fletcher laughs at such an explanation of his power, and says that he would not venture to pick up wild adders by their tails, as I sometimes do. His adders are savage at first, but in a very short time grow accustomed to the hand, and may then be taken up and handled by any person. Dr. Günther says he has met with cases similar to the one I have related; and he tells of a gentleman who, to show how harmless the tamed adder can be made, is accustomed to put one into the hands of his little child.

The ring-snake, though found in the valleys, is exceedingly rare on the high downs. But the snake compared with the adder is a great traveller, and he is sometimes met with miles away from the low meadows and pasture lands where the frog abides; and I will conclude this chapter with a strange story of a big snake found by a shepherd-boy on one of the highest points of the South Downs, between the villages of Jevington and Willingdon. He was an intelligent boy of thirteen, and finding him in a lonely spot with his flock I stopped to have a chat with him, and he was delighted to talk about the small birds, the foxes, rabbits, adders, and other inhabitants of the furze bushes known to him. After some talk I said good-bye and went on; but had not walked fifty yards before he came running after me, to say that he had forgotten to tell me about the big snake. One day last summer he was with his flock near a wheat-field, and in the corn he found a skylark's nest, with five young birds in it. In the evening he told two of his playmates about the nest; and next day they all went together to visit it, and agreed to take the young birds home and bring them up in cages; and as young larks usually die when taken small they planned to leave them in the nest until they were grown and almost ready to fly. When the proper time came, and the birds were nearly ready to make their escape, they went to the field with a cage; but on arriving at the spot found the nest empty, and a huge snake lying coiled up near it. When they discovered it they were very much afraid, owing to its great sizc and threatening aspect, as it rose up and hissed loudly at them. But it moved away very slowly, hindered, like the famous serpent of Horsham, by "a quantity of thickness in the middle." Arming themselves with big flints, they began to stone it, and one sharp flint striking it with great force cut its body open, when, from the wound, out fell one of the full-grown young larks. When they had finished killing the snake, and pressed its body where the thickness was with their feet, the other four birds were forced out. They took the snake home, and all the people in the village came to look at it, hanging to the branch of a tree; and the schoolmaster measured it with a foot-rule, and found that it was exactly four feet in length. Its body, the boy said, was as thick as his arm.

There was nothing incredible in his story. There are well-authenticated cases, of much bigger snakes, some six feet long, killed in England. Last summer I caught and measured four snakes in the New Forest, and the two biggest were three feet, and three feet one inch, respectively. If these snakes had been killed they would probably have measured more, as it is exceedingly difficult to get the proper length when they are violently struggling to free themselves, and contracting their bodies; but I should have been very sorry to kill one even to add several inches to its three feet.