Snakes in the grass

by Richard Jones

I've dredged up from the back of my mind a statistic - something like 1 in 25 UK gardens with a pond will have a grass snake in it.

Garter snakeI've dredged up from the back of my mind a statistic - something like 1 in 25 UK gardens with a pond will have a grass snake in it. Mine, unfortunately, is one of the 24 others without this lovely and fascinating reptile. So when I heard that a snake had been spotted in nearby Nunhead Cemetery recently, I was intrigued. This 51-acre site in south London is completely surrounded by houses and gardens, and was laid out as a garden-style burial ground in the 1840s. It is now beautifully overgrown, but is a long way from the countryside.

I don't think there was ever any doubt that it was not a grass snake. It had a bright orange stripe down its back, definitely not one of the distinguishing factors of Natrix natrix. Its first announcement was made through a local environmental internet group and Liz Taylor, the Cemetery's site manager, made an urgent plea: "Should I be very afraid?" Luckily a helpful herpetologist was able to identify her slightly fuzzy picture as most likely one of the North American garter snakes. These quiet and docile animals are often kept as pets, and the likelihood is that this one was dumped well meaningly, but completely inappropriately, in Nunhead's wild and overgrown Victorian cemetery. All this would have been of mere academic interest, except that Liz's final question gripped my attention: "Does anyone want it?"

My daughters had nagged me some years ago to get a pet snake. We'd even visited various exotic pet stores, but nothing ever came of it. Tentatively, I made my offer to take it. That was all very well, but first we'd have to catch the thing. How do you find a snake in a cemetery? Leaving aside images of needles and haystacks, it is like … well ... looking for a snake in a cemetery. Everywhere you look there are brown curly things looking like snakes - roots, stems, twigs and branches.

Of course, it was no real surprise when we failed to find it, even after an hour of beating about its last known sighting, near the pond on Nunhead Hill. Oh well, it was fun trying.

But two days later I get a call that the beast has been seen, found, captured, and is awaiting my attention in a garden refuse bag in the Portakabin. So now our private menagerie has increased by one snake.

Our scaly friend precisely illustrates, for me, the wonder and excitement of garden wildlife. You really do not know what to expect next. Maybe it will be a grass snake after all. Of course, there was the time that polecat ferret looked in at the cat flap…

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Snakes in the grass
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

Gardeners' World Web User 25/06/2009 at 21:40

We had a pond excavated last year with a large waterfall and today we saw a snake basking in the sun on one of the rocks. It slithered off into the hole where the pond pump is situated and I was rather alarmed at first as i have been bitten twice by an adder in our grounds but after looking up adders on the internet realised it was in fact a grass snake, so we are one of the 25 people who have a grass snake near their pond, aren't we lucky!!

Gardeners' World Web User 25/06/2009 at 23:23

Last year I was bitten on my foot whilst dead heading a climbing rose. My feet were underneath a clump of day lilies. I felt the stabing pain, stepped back onto the path and rubbed my foot and could see two puncture marks side by side about a centimetre apart. I wasn;t sure if a spider had bitten me but a friend who keeps pet snakes asured me it was a snake bite. I didn't see anything and although it was near our pond I haven't seen anything since.

Gardeners' World Web User 26/06/2009 at 00:14

Ugh! Snakes! I hate them! We have a half-barrel pond with four fish in which is sat on our patio. It's only a small pond. Can anyone tell me are we likely to get a grass snake in there? If so my partner can feed the fish in future!!

Gardeners' World Web User 26/06/2009 at 07:13

Saw a grass snake in our small pond last week. He was only about as thick as my finger and about 14" long. He was in and out for a few days (probably eating the tadpoles), but I haven't seen him lately. I felt quite priviledged !!!

Gardeners' World Web User 26/06/2009 at 10:21

We have a very small pond that for several years has teemed with frogs until a couple of years ago when we spotted a very large grass snake sunning himself beside the pond - there are now no frogs to eat the slugs and we have not seen the grass snake again either!

See more comments...