Burial mounds are still home for the living

Male adder covers female
Male adder covers female

Many a Bronze Age burial mound is inhabited by the living. Deep inside the catacombs unseen by us creep the new folk.

They are the ones who can slide between the stones and the damp, dripping chalk that today still over the graves of our ancestors. There they sleep for the winter in safety coiled together for warmth as tight a rubber bands.

In the first week of April they will awake and climb back into the spring air. Others will emerge from old warrens where they too have slept among the skulls and bones of rabbits lying there for centuries.

Without these graves, the living adders would hardly exist. I took this photograph a few years ago in the second week of April when the reptiles had travelled to their summer haunts and were in the act of mating.

The small silvery snake with black zig-zag pattern is the male. He is lying on top of the much fatter and browner female. I had watched him the day before fighting off another male.

The two performed what came to be known as the dance of the adders.

I had taken a picture of that as well but it was perhaps too blurred for reprinting on this page.

The two males had twisted around each other’s throats and formed a spiral as they reached up on their tails.

The stronger one would topple the weaker two or three times before the contest was decided. I would see them there for several years.

The gorse and heather was their summer haunt. But then by August, the female would return to the big tumulus to have her young.

These I would see lying around their mother. At my approach they would slide rapidly underneath her and then she would rear up slightly and be ready to strike at any foe.

The young then were quite hidden underneath her and this once gave rise to the idea that she swallowed her young for safety.

I often wondered what our ancestors would have made of the fact that snakes slept within the tombs. Would they have been the spirits of the dead, or those of their enemies?

Today adders are becoming far less common than they were even 50 years ago when I first discovered the colony on Kingley Vale near Chichester.

Do badgers eat them? I know buzzards do. I have seen them catching adders on Exmoor. Both predators are today common.

When they travel from their hibernaculae to their summer grounds the adders move at considerable speed.

Many times on the usual date of April 4, I would have a school party visiting the nature reserve when the adders were travelling the three hundred metres and they would entrance and sometimes frighten the children as they slid at walking speed past the group.

Even today those same children who have become grandparents tell me how they remember that wonderful moment when they witnessed the migration of the adders from the tombs to the summer haunts.