Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snakes in Provence

This afternoon I was swinging gently in my hammock, tied between two graceful pine trees. Just contemplating nature for a moment, and the beautiful blue sky.

It's the 21st September but warm enough to be T-shirt weather. Last week, staying with friends down near Sète in the Languedoc, the Mediterranean sea was wonderfully warm to swim in. And this last weekend the pool in my neighbours' little hamlet outside Velleron was perfect to swim in.

Feeling rather blissed out by autumn heat and sunshine, I tipped myself out of the hammock and headed for the house to fetch a glass of cold rosé wine. (Listel Grain de Gris - cheap but entirely cheerful.)

On my way, I stooped to pick up a fallen oleander flower and found my hand an inch away from a three foot long snake.

I instantly snatched my hand away and took a closer look. He was a handsome coulevre - an adder - common in the south of France as elsewhere in Europe. His skin was grey green with black and yellow markings. He regarded me cooly, nothing moving apart from his lisping tongue. "Lovely creature" I thought, and went on my way.

However, an image suddenly flashed into my head of a neighbour's cat toying with a coulevre last autumn. Sasha (a contraction of sale chat - dirty cat) was highly entertained to discover an adder in the olive grove near his owner's house. He had fun sticking his claws out and waving his paws in the general direction of the adder's head. The adder, understandably, reared up, looking for a fight. I carried on inspecting the progress of the olives and ignored the pair of them.

But I have a cat myself - Coco - a rather gentle soul, a caramel and chocolate coloured Burmese/Siamese cross, and I wondered if the adder posed a threat to him? Coco's lived here since appearing out of the forest, thin and hungry, in July 2007 and I've seen him investigate a dead snake before.

Glancing into the sitting room, I saw him snoozing peacefully on a bain de soleil that I brought inside during a recent thunderstorm. He would wake up in a while. If he went out for a stroll and found a three foot long snake in the undergrowth he'd inevitably try to communicate with it...

Wondering what the outcome was likely to be, I looked on Wikipedia. It turns out that snake bites - bites by adders at least - are not at all good for pets or livestock. Humans suffer a range of horrible effects from an adder's venom, so heaven knows how a small cat would react. Wikipedia lists the effects in humans as follows:

"anaphylaxis can be dramatic.[Other] symptoms include nausea, retching, vomiting, abdominal colic, diarrhoea, incontinence of urine and faeces, sweating, fever, vasoconstriction, tachycardia, lightheadedness, loss of consciousness, blindness, shock, angioedema of the face, lips, gums, tongue, throat and epiglotis, urticaria and bronchospam. If left untreated, these symptoms may persist or fluctuate for up to 48 hours. In severe cases, cardiovascular failure may occur."

Yikes. I had to get that snake off my land before the cat woke up and went outside.

Armed with a long thin branch that a friend's son made into a walking stick last year, I went out to deal with the adder. He was still motionless, lolling in an S-shape under a rosemary bush. I prodded him gently and he moved. I prodded him again, hoping to pick him up and deposit him along the track, and he went completely nuts. He writhed, turned, slithered, raced up to the top of the rosemary bush and turned to face me directly, hissing and flicking his tongue around like a maniac. His head shot out towards me with clear intent to inflict injury.

Standing back, I gave this some thought. If he'd do this with a towering human, he'd certainly do it with Coco. And Coco wouldn't be prodding him with a six foot stick; he'd be using a delicate paw. I went and turned the hose on and treated the snake to a light outdoor shower. He was unmoved. I rattled the stick around a bit and spoke encouragingly. He stood higher in the bush and his tongue darted out over and over again. Those beady eyes fixed me with an uncannily direct glare.

I backed off and after a while he descended from the bush. I beat the ground near him and he slithered away. Unfortunately, he slithered straight into a huge pile of dead vine stumps that I collected from a neighbour's vineyard and will be using for firewood in the winter. There is so much cover for him there that I can quite imagine he'll set up home for the winter and stay.

Which means sooner or later Coco will amble past the vine stumps, hear a bit of snake activity in progress, and stick his nose or his paw in to investigate.

He's already being duffed up nightly by a neighbour's cat who lacks castration. The poor cat now faces adder attack as he takes his evening stroll.

We all understand that nature is red in tooth and claw but Provence generally brings you close to a nature which is comparatively gentle. Wild boar roaming about looking for larvae and fallen cherries. Turtle doves mating discreetly in the pines. Bees out and about, charmingly making lavender honey.

I have nothing against coulevres and wish them a peaceful, painfree life. I just hope the coulevre in the wood pile will take the same approach when, inevitably, he meets my cat.


  1. The snake you saw is one of the grass snakes (coulevres), probably Western Whip, which although aggressive and fast are not venomous. One to warn the cat about is the vipere or adder - dark with diamond markings on back.

  2. I just found a viper at my front door:(
    I live near Menerbes and in 10 yrs have never encountered any snakes.......Yikes I have two Scottish Terriers and while these are ratters I don't think they would fare too well with this guy.......