Snakes in the garden

Posted: Friday 2 December 2011
by Kate Bradbury

…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.

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 (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.

(Many thanks to Jules Howard for the photographs used in this blog.)

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Talkback: Snakes in the garden
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happymarion 02/12/2011 at 18:52

I have lots of slow worms in my compost "Daleks", Kate. The bins are plastic but keep very warm with decomposing matter in them and seem perfect habitat for the slow worms. They are of all sizes and I shall measure the longest for you when the bins have to be emptied when my raised beds are built. There will be a corrugated sheet nearby for the slow worms to shelter under till the bins are repositioned. They are such beautiful creatures, really iridescent in the sun.

Richard Jones 02/12/2011 at 21:28

I recently got news of a snake in One Tree Hill, Honor Oak. In the middle of urban London, this would have been very exciting. Except it turns out to be a big (1-metre) black and yellow banded beast as thick as a rolling pin. It's likely to be a North American King Snake. I had a quick look last week, but found nothing by bashing about in the brambles.

Kate Bradbury 05/12/2011 at 15:55

Lovely to see your avatars, Richard and Marion! Hopefully lots of others will follow suit soon.

happymarion - I look forward to discovering the length of your longest slow worm!

Richard - please keep us posted on the king snake.


steephill 08/12/2011 at 13:27

I also have lots of slow worms in my "Dalek" compost bins - clearly a favored habitat. A few photos here

I also found a grass snake living alongside the slow worms in the bin which surprised me!

Kate Bradbury 11/12/2011 at 16:24

@steephill Lovey photos, and lucky you having so many living in your compost bins!


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