Snakes on the plains

Eric Bryan’s guide to the varied serpents living in hiking country in the south of France – and what you should do if you get bitten by one...

29 May 2019
A Montpellier snake, photographed in the Hérault
By Connexion journalist

Reading Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono might inspire you to wander the Provencal countryside and enjoy its epic beauty – but watch out for what might be underfoot.

Potential dangers, running from slight to severe, are posed by the few species of poisonous snakes which inhabit the south of France.

It is wise to keep these creatures in mind while hiking in the countryside, especially from spring to autumn when they are active.

The Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) is mildly venomous and can grow up to 2.55m long. It is the largest snake in Europe.

It is rear-fanged: the fangs which insert venom are at the back of its mouth.

On the hunt in daylight hours, the Montpellier snake feeds mostly on lizards. When threatened or challenged, it can raise its front end like a cobra and hiss. Its venom has a low toxicity, and the snake is not generally dangerous to people.

Its rear fangs make it difficult for it to inject venom when biting a human, but the largest individuals can manage to do so in some circumstances.

In such a situation, the victim’s symptoms can be neurological – in rare cases, bites can cause temporary paralysis.

The Montpellier snake is one of the most common serpent species in the south of France, even in fairly populated locales.

It favours dry rocky terrain, but also inhabits meadows, oak forests and wetlands.

Montpellier snakes are often run over by vehicles while crossing roads, and farmers frequently kill them.

The meadow viper (Vipera ursinii), which averages 40- 50cm but can grow up to 80cm in length, is the smallest viper in Europe.

A meadow viper

Also known as the field viper or adder, and Orsini’s or Ursini’s viper, it is the most threatened snake on the continent and is a protected species.

Its habitat ranges from lowland wetlands to dry mountain meadows. This snake’s diet consists mostly of insects and small vertebrates.

Not generally regarded as dangerous to humans, the meadow viper’s venom is of a mild toxicity, harmful only to its small prey. People bitten by the meadow viper usually don’t need hospitalisation. The snake hunts during the daytime, and is not known to be aggressive.

The asp viper (Vipera aspis) or European asp averages 60- 75cm in length, but it can grow up to 90cm long.

A juvenile asp viper

The snake requires a sunny, dry and warm habitat, but with enough vegetation for cover.

In the south of France it lives in the hills and low mountains, especially in limestone areas, but is sometimes found on lower plains.

Bites are painful, and have been fatal to a tiny percentage of victims.

The injected venom causes oedema (swelling) around the bite area, can impair vision, and causes kidney failure which can lead to death.

The asp viper sometimes delivers a dry (non-venomous) warning bite first. It is active during the day, but also prowls at dusk or during night-time.

Its diet includes lizards, small mammals and birds.

There are some precautions walkers can take to lessen the chances of unfortunate encounters with serpents.

Wear relatively tall boots, and use a walking staff, knocking the end of it on to the ground ahead of you with each step.

Do not sit on logs or stumps without first carefully inspecting around and under them.

Do not reach into any blind spots in the ground, rocky areas, water or under logs.

In rural properties, beware of lifting boards and the like that are flat on the ground, as it is typical of snakes to hide under such coverings – woodpiles are especially known for becoming snake dens.

Take extra care when walking through tall grass, lavender, or areas where you don’t have a clear view of the ground.

If you are bitten, remain calm, keep the stricken part of the body below heart level, and do not exert yourself, as physical activity will accelerate the spreading of venom through the bloodstream.

Call emergency services. Do not apply any type of tourniquet near the location of the bite, and don’t cut the wound or try to extract venom.

If you can, take a photo of the snake to help doctors identify its type and so administer the correct anti-venom, if required. But the suddenness of the episode, the accompanying surprise or shock, and the possible fleeing of the snake can make taking a photo unlikely.

A description of the reptile’s size, markings, and colours can help emergency personnel determine the type of snake in question.

One helpful detail is the shape of the serpent’s pupils. The Montpellier snake has round pupils, while the vipers have vertical slit-type pupils.

In general, watch where you step, reach, or sit. A little care and awareness can prevent a potentially dangerous incident.

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