Is that a snake in the grass?

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Adders are the UK’s only venomous snake, but are very timid. Picture: Stephen Barlow

It’s easy to forget that we live in a country that boasts several species of snake as we rarely have the pleasure (or displeasure?) of coming across them. I have seen a native snake in the wild twice, and then only for a very brief moment each time. I assumed they were both grass snakes, but they didn’t hang around long enough for me to be able to identify them.

Snakes start emerging from hibernation in March, so spring is the best time to spot them, as they may still be a bit groggy from their long sleep and like to bask in early morning sunshine to warm themselves up.

We have three species of snake native to the UK, the adder, the grass snake and the smooth snake. The first two can be seen all over England and Wales, and the adder in some parts of Scotland, although the smooth snake is far rarer and is found only in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. All of our snakes are protected by law, so it is illegal to injure, kill or trade them.

As my dad says in his column from 31st May 1980, locally, the adder is sometimes called the hagworm, but it is also more widely known as the European viper, a name which to my mind sounds far more threatening, and in some ways is deservedly so, as it is the only one of the three that is venomous.

However, humans are very rarely bitten, as adders are extremely timid, and they are sensitive to the vibrations of our footsteps on the ground which warn them of our approach. We are only likely to be bitten if we accidentally stand on one, or if it feels threatened. Even then, the bite is rarely dangerous, causing no more than temporary pain and possibly nausea and dizziness. The venom is strong enough to stun prey, like small mammals, birds and reptiles, that it eats whole, but it is very unlikely to be harmful to a human. That’s not to say there have been no recorded fatalities here, but the last one was back in 1975 when a five-year-old boy sadly died after being bitten on the ankle while on a day out in The Trossachs in Scotland.

The adult adder can grow to almost a metre long, and the brownish female is larger than the more silvery-coloured male, although they both have a distinctive black zig-zag pattern down the spine with either a V or X-shaped marking on the head. They reproduce in late summer, giving birth to up to 20 exact mini-replicas of themselves, each about 17cm long.

The most common snake in the UK is the grass snake, which can grow up to 1.3 metres in length. It is completely harmless, so there is no need to be afraid if you come across one hiding in your compost bin. It is different to the adder in that it is grey-green in colour, with black bars down its sides and a black and yellowy collar at its neck. They also have round pupils in their eyes, while adders have narrow elongated pupils. They are excellent swimmers and often live close to water so they can feed on the resident amphibians and reptiles. It uses stealth to surprise its prey, before squeezing them to death and eating them whole. If it comes under threat from a predator, it will sometimes play dead and emit a foul-smelling odour from its anal glands. It is the only native snake that lays eggs, which take about ten weeks to hatch, usually in July.

There is another reptile that is sometimes confused for a snake, and that is the slow worm. About 40-50cm in length, the slow worm is in fact a legless lizard, with a smooth, glossy grey-brown body. If it blinks at you, then you know you’re looking at a slow worm because, unlike lizards, snakes do not have eyelids. It also has a clever trick when under attack, which is to shed its own tail, which then keeps moving for a while to distract the predator enabling the slow worm to escape.

Over the past weeks, many of us have taken advantage of the extra spare time by walking in the wonderful countryside near our own homes. Has anyone spotted any of these fascinating creatures while out and about?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th May and the Gazette & Herald on 27th May 2020

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