Outdoors: There's nothing deadly about an adder - unless you're a small bird or mouse perhaps...

Snakes are a bit like spiders in that even the most sane and rational people can have the most insane and irrational phobias about them. It is an innate characteristic of the human psyche and since the earliest of times snakes have invoked fear and loathing.

Such depth of feeling was all too vividly brought home to me when my wife and I stumbled across an adder sunning itself on a path near Dunkeld. Her measured response was to run back down the track with hands in the air screaming, "snake, snake!", leaving a rather sheepish husband to quickly scan the horizon through half-opened fingers to ensure no other walkers had witnessed the incident. The bemused snake, meanwhile, slid harmlessly away into the undergrowth.

Such reactions are typical, but does the adder, Scotland's only snake, really deserve such a fearsome reputation? The facts would certainly suggest not, for while the adder is indeed venomous, it is very rare for a person to be bitten. Adders are generally timid creatures and have no desire for confrontation, with the most common sight of one usually being a fleeting back-end view as it races for cover.

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Even if a bite were to occur, the end result is usually pretty mild. One study has shown that about 70 per cent of adder bites are "dry", with less than the maximum amount of venom injected. Occasionally, the symptoms of a bite can be much more unpleasant and include painful swelling or numbness at the puncture point, along with nausea or dizziness – but death is highly unlikely, with the last recorded fatality being over 30 years ago. It is, however, always crucial to seek immediate medical attention as a sensible precaution.

A whole range of traditional cures and folk remedies exist for treating an adder bite, including herbal mixes and incantations. No doubt local quacks would have relished such incidents, offering as they did a welcome opportunity to boost flagging reputations, given that full recovery of the patient was usually guaranteed, no matter the concoction applied.

Adders are very localised in Scotland and are absent from large swathes of the country. The favoured habitat is dry, low-lying moors, with the Angus glens, Deeside and parts of Perthshire all being adder hotspots, as are some parts of the Trossachs and the Southern Uplands. They are found as far north as Caithness and also on some of the Inner Isles such as Mull.

This is a good time of year to see adders as they have just emerged from hibernation and like nothing better than to bask on paths or atop large rocks soaking up the the sun. Adders mate in May and they have favoured areas where males and females congregate. During the mating period males can rear up in a swaying dancing display where one tries to force the other away so as to be first to reach the larger female.

Adders feed on mice and voles, lizards, amphibians and the chicks of ground-nesting birds such as the meadow pipit. Prey is hit with a swift strike from the fangs, and once dead, swallowed whole. In the course of a year, an adder need eat only a handful of voles to fully sustain it.

The adder is designed to kill small prey items, not to bring down a 12-stone human being and this alone should be enough to alleviate any fears of this fascinating creature. But if you are still unsure about adders, then why not ponder this piece of sage advice from the Scottish naturalist, the late David Stephen.

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"The important thing not to do when you are bitten by an adder is to run about in a panic. You aren't likely to die unless you run yourself into the ground and die of exhaustion."

• This article was first published in the Scotsman, Saturday April 10, 2010