Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Reptilian refuge

Britain's reptiles simply don't deserve the bad rep given by that larger and more aggressive species Homo sapiens. For sure there is something about the way a snake moves which can stir a primal fear inside us, but this is just a throw-back to a time long ago when it paid to be wary of a certain few venomous species. 

Young Grass Snake (Natrix natrix), probably a yearling - Photo by Natalie Kay. These guys are not 
venomous and are completely harmless (unless you happen to be a frog or newt).
 
The reason you don't often see reptiles out and about in the countryside is that they flee the scene before you stumble across them; snakes can find themselves on the menu of everything from Carrion Crows and birds of prey to Badgers, Foxes, Cats and even Hedgehogs! If they don't move out of the way that's because they are hoping you haven't spotted them. UK reptiles are extremely benign and our only venomous species, the Adder (Vipera berus), rarely bites. In the last century only 12 fatalities were reportedly due to Adders, which is much fewer than deaths caused by wasp stings, cows and stray golf balls (my new phobia!)

Grass Snake skin found under a refugia, Grassy Slope, North West Zone.
Apparently males slough their skin twice a year, females only once

We survey for reptiles at Gatwick by placing out roofing-felt mats or 'refugia', providing a safe place for these secretive and cold-blooded beings to hide away from predators while they warm up with the sun's heat. It is kind of like a solar charging mat or iPod docking station.

It feels like Christmas (in a good way) when I first lift up a mat...

Grass Snake trying its best to blend into its surroundings

Grass Snakes tend to be olive green in colour, have disconnected black stripe markings down the length of their bodies and a distinctive yellow collar at the base of their heads. We seem to have a healthy population here though I am sad to say that I have never seen an Adder at Gatwick... nor Common Lizard (Zootoca viviparaor Slow Worm (Anguis fragilisfor that matter! As we are focusing our habitat management on as many different species as possible there is always the possibility of future appearances. In the meantime here are the other things which have been taking advantage of the refugia...

A young vole, not sure which species

 Glow Worm larvae (Lampyris noctiluca) in Ashley's Field

Rustic Wolf Spider (Trochosa ruricola)?

A tiny Common Toad (surely a risky business sharing refugia with Grass Snakes!)

Occasionally I am also lucky enough to be walking about the place and spot a Grass Snake out in the open...
Blending in with the grass, living up to the name. North West Zone

At home in the water - Land East of the Railway Line. I'm particularly proud of this photo - luckily it didn't see me and I was able to get this shot just before it about-turned!

Reptiles are protected for a reason; their numbers have suffered sharp declines in recent decades and their habitat is continually being removed and developed. If you are fortunate enough to come across one of these fascinating beasts please just let it do it's thing and enjoy that rare moment.

For more pics and info on Grass Snakes: http://www.arkive.org/grass-snake/natrix-natrix/