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Snakes in the garden
I’ve never had much luck with snakes. I’ve never found them in gardens, or encountered them on country walks. Once, on a school trip to Pembrokeshire, I found a dead snake in the road. I was fascinated by this black, shrivelled creature, but I wasn’t allowed to pick it up.
Some years later, when diving in Fiji, a sea snake slithered past me, just after I had got back in the boat. Two minutes earlier and I would have been able to swim with it, or at least follow it for a while, before it vanished into the blue.
So I was hopeful this summer, that the crackling I heard while negotiating an overgrown area of beach in Dorset, meant that I would finally lock eyes with a real, live, snake.
It wasn’t to be. Whatever had been basking in the sun had retreated to safety and refused to come out again.
There are just three types of snake in the UK, plus a slow worm, pictured left (a leg-less lizard that looks a bit like a snake). Only one of them, the adder, is venomous, but it’s very unlikely to come into gardens.
The reptile I startled in Dorset was probably a slow worm or grass snake (pictured above). These benign species often turn up in gardens, mostly in the south of England, and very rarely in the north. They bask in rockeries, feed in ponds and breed in compost heaps.
Adders, grass snakes and slow worms are declining. Unlike mammals, these slow-moving, cold-blooded reptiles aren’t good at adapting to changing conditions, and so die out in localities where they were previously abundant. They can’t cross roads very well, climb fences or negotiate building sites. They are creatures of a forgotten time, when habitats remained unchanged and wild spaces were ‘wild’.
Luckily, gardens can be fantastic reptile habitats. Like many garden creatures, snakes and slow worms favour log piles, compost heaps, ponds and rockeries (preferably south-facing ones so they can bask in the sun), and they need spaces under fences so they can travel between gardens. They’ll be hibernating now under tree roots or paving slabs, or in compost heaps.
So don’t worry if you have snakes or slow worms, but celebrate the fact that your plot is home to such ancient, precious creatures. If you’re wary of stumbling across one while gardening, just wear wellies and gloves.
I’ve no hope of attracting any snakes to my Hackney garden, but I’m researching local reptile habitats, so I can go looking for them next year. I’ve decided that, for me, 2012 will be the year of the snake.
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