There are over 8,000 species of reptile on earth; Britain has only six of these, and three are snakes. Natural science illustrations of reptiles are always a challenge thanks to the problems presented by scientifically illustrating their scales; however, this in no way diminishes my affection tor them.
Two of the three species are common across Britain, while the third (the Smooth snake Coronella austriaca) is only found on southern heathland.
First up is the Grass snake (Natrix natrix). This snake is common and found throughout the UK, and at 70-100cm long it's our largest snake. It is non-venomous; and can be found in damper areas near water, such as stream or canal banks, or even garden ponds. If you ever see a snake that's swimming, it'll be the Grass snake. It's greyish-olive, with black markings; its most distinctive feature is its bright yellow neck collar. Unusually for a snake, it has a round rather than a slit-shape pupil.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix)
The Grass snake feeds on frogs and toads, but will also eat baby birds and small mammals. It dissuades predators by "playing dead" (lying on its back, frozen, until the threat passes) or emitting an unpleasant smalling substance from its anal glands.
Like all British snakes, the Grass snake hibernates from Septemeber/ October and emerges again in late April or May, when the weather warms up again.
Our next British snake is the Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), one of the rarest animals in Britain. It is only found in Southern heathland, and is greyish brown with a darker heart shaped mark on the top of its head. Again, this is a non-venomous reptile.
Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)
It reaches 70vm in length, and feeds on small mammals and lizards, which it constricts in the coils of its body.
The Adder (Vipera berus) is a distinctive; greyish colour with a zig-zag pattern of diamonds along its back. It's a stocky snake, and rarely reaches more than 70cm in length. Males are more silvery in colour than the browner females.
Adders favour moorland and heath habitat, but are also common on woodland edges. They feed on small birds (larks, pipits) and mammals, as well as lizards.
Although the adder is venemous, and its bite can be painful to humans, it's far more likely to try and escape than to attack us.
The Adder (Vipera berus)
The best time of year to hunt for these animals is on the first warm days in March or April, when they'll've just emerged from hibernation, or late in September or October, right before they go into hibernation. Look for them basking in patches of sun, on a log, or in the warm micro-climate created under an old sheet of corrugated iron.
For more on British reptiles, please look at the Amphibian and Reptiles Conservation page (ARC) or the Wildlife Trusts UK website. Please remember that all British reptile species are protected by law, and it is a criminal offense to deliberately harm, kill, or trade in them.
There may only be three British snake species, but every time I see one (mostly just the flicker of a disappearing tail), I feel thrilled to be sharing the countryside with them.
For more on British reptiles, have a llok at my blog on Lizards.
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