This week we are focusing on a not too well named animal, better monikers would perhaps be ‘Pond snake’ or even the old country name of ‘Ringed snake’ than the official but rather dull name of Grass Snake.
This is Britain’s commonest and largest reptile species and is quite widespread – meaning that it is relatively easy to find for the amateur naturalist, I have come across plenty of these splendid creatures myself. Several of the best sightings I have had of this species were at Buchan country park which is located on the edge of my home town. This park is a nice mix of woodland, heathland and freshwater habitats so is ideal for Grass Snakes.
I remember quite clearly walking on my own through the woodland here in summer when I was frozen by first the sound of rustling then the sight of a huge snake sliding through the leaf litter. It was at least a metre long and thick as a rope, it had itself frozen at the sight of me and was little more than a few feet away. I could clearly see its bright cream-colored collar and large gazing eyes set in a stripy scaled head, my heart was the only sound I could hear as it thudded with the excitement of the moment – I recall staring at the snake without a blink so that I could soak in every detail of this close-encounter with the reptile-kind. After what felt like an hour but was only 40 seconds the snake scarpered with remarkable speed into the bracken, leaving me utterly thrilled.
- The scientific name Natrix natrix is derived from the Latin nato meaning ‘I swim’.
- Their main prey are common frogs and toads, however they will also eat fish, ants, worms, tadpoles and occasionally small mammals. An adult will only need eat 3 or 4 large meals in one season to sustain it.
- Males become sexually mature at 3 years and females after 4, mating is simple with little in the way of courtship, the female will up to 40 eggs in a suitable location (such as compost heap, manure pile or mammal burrow) – this is the only British snake to lay eggs – the other 2 are viviparous.
- The Grass Snake is sexually dimorphic so females are larger and longer than males; typical mature females can be 1.1 metres long although rare examples of snakes reaching 1.9 metres are known. Males are usually 50cm shorter.
- Their range covers much of Europe from Scandinavia to Italy but it is absent from Ireland and Scotland.
- They are not venomous so in defence they will usually produce a foul liquid from their anal glands, defecate or regurgitate their last meal. They may also play dead in a rather ‘hammy’ manner with gaping mouth, lolling tongue and upturned belly or if cornered they may puff themselves up, hiss and strike out. Usually they will just flee if disturbed into undergrowth or under water.
- Grass snakes can be found from April until October (depending on climate), they are best sought on a sunny morning in early spring when they are warming up, in April or May they are busy mating or looking for mates and hunting after their long hibernation underground.
- Typical life spans can be up to 25 years.