The shrieks of alarm from my mother could be heard all along the street leaving neighbours wondering what on earth could be happening at No 43. Personally I couldn’t understand it; after all it was only a snake for goodness sake. Admittedly putting it in the bath to see how well it could swim and then leaving it there for a short while whilst I fetched my mates was ill
considered, but honestly what was all the fuss about? Poor mum, innocently pushing open the bathroom door and encountering an 18 inch reptile occupying the bathtub must have been startling, reminiscent of a Gerald Durrell family moment, and she wasn’t amused. I remember being told in quite specific terms to get the animal out of the house, complying with a teenage shrug and muttering that life was unfair. My first and quite entertaining encounter with a grass snake.
I came across this fine specimen in a damp meadow at what is now the NWT urban nature reserve at Thorpe Marshes, picked it up, put it in my ample jacket pocket and took it home. Not something that is proper or legal nowadays, but instructive nonetheless. At no stage during this rough transportation did the wonderfully marked snake attempt to bite me or show any signs of aggression. It was simply a beautiful wild creature that I wanted to get close to.
Grass snakes, one of only three species of true snake to inhabit our green and pleasant land, can be found in a wide range of habitats. They are regular inhabitants of our commons, favouring damper areas but equally at home on dry grassland. They will enter gardens adjoining such areas, especially if there are ponds present where they can hunt for frogs and newts, or compost heaps where they can lay their eggs. Ace predators, they are not immune from attack themselves; badgers, foxes, domestic cats, hedgehogs and various birds such as buzzards and herons all take their toll. If a snake avoids predation it could live up to 15 or more years.
The adults emerge from hibernation with the first warm days of March or April, males appearing first and commencing the process of locating a female with which to mate. They can attain lengths of up to 150cm and are easily recognised by their overall grey/green colouration and distinctive yellow collar just behind their head. The adder, the only other snake likely to be encountered in Norfolk, is quite different, being much darker in colour with a clear zig zag line running along its entire length.
During the early summer, usually in June, the female grass snake will seek out piles of rotting vegetation in which to deposit her eggs. Such places act as a natural incubator: generating sufficient heat to incubate the eggs until they hatch, up to 10 weeks later during August or September. The young hatchlings, no longer than a pencil, already have the same colouration as the adults and can immediately swim well, hunting independently from birth.
Protecting our commons and wild spaces is vital for wildlife but especially so for these shy, timid reptiles that need tracts of unpolluted and unmolested habitat in which to feed, breed and hibernate. We should value such areas and do all we can to preserve and enhance them. You can even encourage them into your garden by leaving piles of logs for hibernation; creating your very own hibernaculum.
Celebrate grass snakes! They are superbly adapted predators epitomising the diversity to be found within our common land. Although my mother exhibited alarm all those years ago, perhaps there is hope for a more enlightened future: I overheard a conversation between two young ladies, Brownies in fact, whilst leading a birdwatching trip recently. The first said ‘I hate grass snakes, they bite you’. The second responded indignantly with ‘No, they don’t! Snakes are awesome.’ I couldn’t have put it better.