Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Secret Reptile of Canals and Marshes

Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
Secret Reptile of Canals and Marshes

Grass Snake Thomas Wood 2

Grass snake by Thomas Wood

On a hot summer day, on Thorne Moors or on the North Yorkshire Moors, then the adder is a snake to watch for. However, often unseen across a much wider swathe of lowland Yorkshire another reptile goes quietly about its business. If we ignore escapees and other exotic species, we have two snakes and two reptiles, the latter including the slow worm which confuses people because as a legless lizard it looks like a snake! Anyway, the other true snake is the grass snake (Natrix natrix), a denizen of watery and wet places such as marshes, fens, streamsides and wet woodlands. Although the grass snake is potentially quite big, it is of course non-venomous, the adder being our only poisonous reptile. A large female can be up to five feet long, and unlike the viviparous adder, which holds its eggs internally and so gives birth to live young, the grass snake lays eggs. In doing this, it seeks out warm sites such as warm piles of rotting vegetation, and compost heaps or woodchip piles into which the eggs are placed. The heat generated by decomposition then helps the young snakes grow inside their shells until they are ready to burst forth on the world. The heat of the decomposition helps to incubate the eggs and then a seething mass of tiny snakelets quickly emerges, to find damp meadows and the relative safety of waterways, ponds or lakes.

Grass Snake at Potteric by Paul Ardron 4

Young grass snake by Paul Ardron

In many areas, where wetlands survive, grass snakes are not uncommon. So why, you ask, don’t we see them? Well the reason is probably that we blunder about in size 15 boots and make far too much noise. The best thing is to find a quiet spot and wait. This is exactly what my friend Paul Ardron did at Potteric Carr Nature Reserve near Doncaster, and it paid dividends. Late one afternoon, on a recent trip to seek out rare birds and late summer dragonflies, he and his colleagues were sitting quietly in one of the hides, when they were treated to a fantastic show of up to five grass snakes apparently hunting in shallow water around the bird hide. Moving swiftly, sinuously, smoothly over and in the water these reptiles showed off their glorious green, yellow and gold markings as they weaved in and out of the grassy vegetation in search of frogs and froglets, or perhaps a vole or two for lunch. Strong swimmers, they will also take toads and small fish. Soon now, across Yorkshire, these wonderful creatures will be heading down into darkened nooks and crannies to hibernate through what may be another long hard winter. In the meantime, look out for them along well-vegetated rivers and canals, and around lakes, ponds and marshes.

Grass Snake at Potteric by Paul Ardron

Young grass snake by Paul Ardron

Sitting quietly in a suitable spot is one way to see grass snakes, but walking slowly through a good area is another. During a recent walk on my usual canal-side jaunt, a shiny, golden-green, zigzag dart suddenly grabbed my attention. At one end of its tiny body were iridescent twin gold spots gleaming in the bright sunlight, the diminutive creature, maybe only four to six inches long, was a baby grass snake. It seemed to almost skim the water surface leaving the barest wake; in appearance rather like a wriggly, twisting, glowing knitting needle of energy. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone back into the sanctuary of the tall flote-grass and other weedy vegetation. My tiny reptile has a long way to go before it can surf the canal in safety, especially given the pike lurking in the deeper water, but given a few years it might attain a length of up to three or four feet. When it is an adult a grass snake will be big enough to see off most would-be predators, though I imagine a grey heron would have a go.

Grass Snake at Potteric by Paul Ardron 2Grass Snake at Potteric by Paul Ardron 3

Young grass snake by Paul Ardron

Meanwhile I received pictures of an adult grass snake taken by Thomas Wood in Sheffield’s Shire Brook Valley Nature Reserve. Here, in amongst the recently created ponds and the small areas of relict, wet flood-meadows, the snakes do well. With abundant easy pickings of the local common frogs and access to garden compost heaps, this is ideal grass snake country. As other sites along the Rother and Don Valleys are cleaned and greened, and with the main arterial watercourses far less polluted, the snakes are able to recolonise sites from which they were long-since banished. Just as St Patrick supposedly banished the adder from Ireland, pollution and land degradation, industrial and rural, did much the same for South Yorkshire’s grass snakes. Now however they are back; long may the resurgence continue.

Grass Snake Thomas Wood

Grass snake by Thomas Wood

Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental    Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change

Grass Snake at Potteric by Paul Ardron 5Young grass snake by Paul Ardron

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2 Responses to Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Secret Reptile of Canals and Marshes

  1. Pingback: Grass snake expansion in Flanders | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. I quite like looking through an article that will make men and women think.

    Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!

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