Snakes alive

Frank SmithCountryman

Brian Bush is fascinated by snakes. Since 1986, he has worked to improve the understanding of snakes among school children and people living in the country through his business, Snakes Harmful and Harmless.

More recently, he has taught miners living in remote locations how to safely deal with snakes and avoid being bitten.

Brian also keeps snakes at his home in Stoneville. His garage — known as the ‘snake pit’ — contains more than 100 snakes, ranging from venomous western brown snakes and dugites to a four-metre long python.

Brian said snakes were often attracted to homes and farm buildings because of mice.

“Mice are favourite food of many species of snake, especially brown snakes. But they are also a farmer’s friend,” Brian said.

“A snake may live for 20 years. If it eats as few as 60 female mice in that time, it has been tremendously beneficial. Left to themselves, those 60 females could breed enough mice in less than two years to consume at least $330,000 worth of wheat.”

Farm animals are at risk of snakebite. “Young horses and cattle are curious. They will put their noses up close to snakes to investigate. If they get too close, they may be bitten,” Brian said.

“Sheep avoid snakes in a paddock. The problem is when they are forced into a yard by dogs. If a snake is present, it may be trodden on and bite several sheep.

“The main snakes found on farms are brown snakes, which include dugites and western brown snakes. The latter is also known by its Noongar name, gwardar. It is found over most of the State.”

Western brown snakes vary in colour and range from 15cm to 1.5m long. They are very active and their venom contains both a blood procoagulant that causes bleeding and a chemical that dilates blood vessels.

When a person or animal has been envenomed, they experience bleeding in their major organs and their blood pressure falls, causing a heart attack.

“Brown snakes have been responsible for 25 of the 41 deaths caused by snakebite in Australia in the past 30 years. Only 10 of those deaths occurred in WA, with seven attributed to brown snakes,” Brian said.

“In comparison, there are 50,000 snake-bite deaths a year in India, 23,000 in western Africa and 20,000 in Pakistan.

“The European honeybee is truly our deadliest venomous animal, causing more deaths annually than all other Australian venomous animals combined.

“Only about 300 of the 3000 known species of snake in the world are venomous and, of these, more than 135 call Australia home.

“Australia has the most deadly snakes in the world, but only if you are a mouse.”

Brian said most snakes were nocturnal. “Snakes are very visually aware and will usually quickly get out of your way, however, they are slower to react at night, when it is much easier to tread on them,” he said.

“They have evolved intimidating threat postures to discourage predation but that also scares people. The basic message is to back off. Just walk away from a snake.”

Snakes are at their most active in spring and autumn. “This is when they are most likely to enter gardens to investigate sheds, aviaries and chook runs,” Brian said.

“Always wear above-ankle boots, thick socks and long trousers and use gloves when collecting firewood.”

Snakes in buildings are more of a problem, because they have less opportunity to escape and therefore become more defensive.

Mr Bush advised people living in the country to modify sheds and houses to exclude snakes. Fit weather strips under doors and fasten dog and cat doors. Check vermin exclusion flaps and drains.

Snakes often enter houses when sliding doors are left open by children, or they are brought in by cats. It is also important to control rodents around the house.

Brian said the critical action to take when a snake bite occurs is to sustain life until the victim can get medical help.

Most bites are on the lower leg, and applying pressure to the area will compress the thin-walled vessels of the lymphatic system just under the skin, preventing the venom from spreading.

Apply a pressure bandage over the bite site as soon as possible, over long trousers if the victim is wearing them.

Cover as much of the limb as possible and tight, as if supporting a sprained ankle. Apply a splint. Then get them to a hospital or nursing post quickly, but safely.

Fortunately, Australia leads the world in managing bites and stings. Because most snakes only bite defensively, and as a last resort, they often do not release much venom.

“More than 90 per cent of bites are dry, but always assume the worst and always believe someone when they say they have been bitten by a snake,” Brian said.

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