Would you like to know how to help all reptiles? They may not be cuddly or furry, but still need help. Ophidiophobia (being scared of snakes) is a common phobia (more so than cutey spiders!) Perhaps it’s due to nature documentaries of snakes dislocating their jaws, to eat whole prey. Or the thought of being strangled to death by a boa constrictor. In fact, most snakes won’t go near humans.
Read Snake, a poem by DH Lawrence about how he regretted throwing a stick at a venomous snake in Sicily, because ‘his education’ told him it was poisonous. An ode to the ‘one of the Lords of life’. In England, it’s unlikely you’ll come across most scary snakes, unless you rescue them. We have 6 native reptiles:
- European adders have a zigzag pattern and are rare for snakes in that they don’t lay eggs, but give birth to live baby adders. They live on field voles, mice and lizards. Their venom is designed to kill rodents (so unless you have a medical condition, a bite is not life-threatening, though you still need medical care. But take care if walking dogs, as snake bites are a vet emergency.
- Grass snakes are fairly common, with black spots on backs, and round eyes. They like wetlands, to eat fish and frogs. If you use netting on garden ponds, choose netting that is safer for wildlife, as it’s easy for them to get trapped in mesh that is too large. Frog Log & Critter Skimmer (get both, they do different things) help stop all small critters from drowning in pools.
- Smooth snakes are related to grass snakes, but are less common (mostly found on the south coast). They have butterfly back-marks and black stripes in their eyes, giving birth in early autumn. They often hide under stones.
- Slow worms are common – grey or brown, though some males have blue spots. They are not snakes (they are lizards without legs – they have eyelids and ears). They also like gardens, and eat slugs, snails, insects and spiders.
- Common lizards are widely found in England and Ireland. They are usually brown with flecks (males) or stripes (females). Young males are sometimes green . They eat insects and invertebrates.
- Sand lizards are rare (found on the south coast and Merseyside). They are larger than common lizards and mostly brown, but turn bright green in spring. Again they eat insects and invertebrates.
To help conserve reptile habitats, you can support or volunteer with Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. If you find snakes in your garden, they are usually slow worms or grass snakes (often found near ponds, under rocks or in/near compost bins). If you suspect an adder passing through, bring pets inside and call them, and they can give advice (local volunteers may come out to identify and advise).
The Pet Reptile Trade
Born Free, Blue Cross & RSPCA all want stricter laws, to avoid people importing live reptiles. And stricter penalties for those who break the laws. Find tips on reptile welfare at RSPCA. You can find help for welfare or rescue at RSCPA Reptile Rescue, National Centre for Reptile Welfare & Reptilia Reptile Rescue.
If you find an escaped pet snake (corn snake, python etc), bring all pets indoors (including outdoor pets like rabbits) and call RSPCA (check with neighbours, as most pet snakes don’t travel far). ARC Trust has info on what to do. It’s best not to capture the snake yourself. But in an emergency, experts say to coax it into a badminton net (or use a tennis racket) to ease into a breathable pillowcase. Then call the vet, wildlife rescue or RSPCA.
Reptile Welfare Worldwide
Charities Born Free, Freedom for Animals and Wild Welfare all want better welfare for reptile houses in zoos. The latter’s field director is not impressed with reptile houses that use ‘heated artificially-lit glass jewellery boxes’. He wants reptiles housed with trees, vegetation, swamps, water and natural sunlight.
Some reptiles suffer enormously, from live shipping to wet markets. Pangolins are mammals (not reptiles) but many believe it was abuse of this creature that started COVID-19. Heed the words of environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth: ‘People last, when they do not eat apples that were not meant for them’.