What's that snake?
PUBLISHED: 16:21 30 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013
A wildlife initiative in Herefordshire aims to bring us closer to our native reptiles. Nigel Hand, Project Officer at The Herefordshire Nature Trust and a life-long snake lover, explains why he wants the people of the county to share his passion
Herefordshire has four of Britain's six native terrestrial reptile species; the adder, grass snake, slow-worm and common or viviparous lizard.
Snakes can cause either complete fascination or total fear and loathing, even amongst 'wildlife lovers'. People have a genuine problem correctly identifying, understanding and appreciating snakes. Even slow-worms, legless lizards, prove difficult to identify and are regularly mistaken for adders. The public now have the opportunity to learn about and observe Herefordshire's reptiles with this exciting wildlife initiative: 'What's That Snake?'
'What's That Snake?' is a two year Heritage Lottery-funded project with additional backing from the Malvern Hills and Wye Valley AONB's and is run by a partnership of Herefordshire Amphibian and Reptile Team (HART) and the Herefordshire Nature Trust.
Reptiles have had a pretty bad press and many people once believed the only good snake was a dead snake. Thankfully these extreme views are a thing of the past, but reptiles, and in particular adders, have declined due to persecution and habitat loss as a recent Natural England report highlighted. The West Midlands suffered heavier reptile losses than most areas as a direct result of urban expansion. In Herefordshire loss of unmanaged grasslands and scrub-covered hillsides through intensive agricultural practices has resulted in largely isolated and fragmented reptile populations. The adder and common lizard, both associated with heathland and unmanaged grassland, have been most impacted by this habitat loss.
I have had a lifelong interest in reptiles. As a child growing up in the Black Country, I spent many a happy hour finding grass snakes along the canal banks, observing lizards on a golf course with my father and discovering a small colony of adders (sadly now gone) on a bank behind my school. Adders have always attracted folklore and superstition being our only venomous snake, but there is little reason to be so fearful as in reality they are shy and retiring, preferring to quietly slip away on approach.
I have always found the adder, with its bold zigzag marking and dangerous reputation particularly exciting. Studying the adder over many years has shown it to be faithful to its habitat location, emerging from winter hibernation in late February and males wrestling over females in late spring in a rarely witnessed wildlife spectacle known as the ''dance of the adder''. My ambition is to nurture sympathetic understanding to these much maligned but fascinating creatures, which are an essential part of our natural history heritage. To see a black and white male adder with its distinctive zig zag pattern basking in the spring sun is a sight many people would never forget.
The Amphibian and Reptile Atlas produced by HART in 2006 revealed a disturbing lack of reptile records particularly for adders and viviparous lizards. Records are vital in determining where healthy populations exist and where urgent work is needed to prevent decline of threatened populations. With the correct training in identification and survey knowledge volunteers will be inspired to appreciate, locate and record these fascinating and secretive creatures at various suitable locations in the county. Verified records will then be submitted to the Herefordshire Biological Records Centre.
The first locations to have teams of trained volunteer recorders for the project are on The Malvern Hills, Fownhope and Ross-on-Wye with more planned in 2010 for other regions of the county. All these sites have old records or anecdotal accounts of reptile presence, but what is the situation today with the pressures of visitor numbers and disturbance? That's what this project hopes to find out.
Volunteers currently on surveys have commented on their enjoyment on visiting the same location at intervals throughout the spring and really seeing the seasonal changes and of feeling very protective of the animals they record there. The wonderful thing is that they are there to observe rather than interact with our native reptiles and so they see these creatures in their completely natural state.
As project officer I visit wildlife groups and schools in Herefordshire, talking about our native reptiles and their habitats and creating wildlife interest for future generations. Feedback from the classroom has been fantastic; children really are engaging about these visits and get very animated. It always impresses me - and the teachers - how much knowledge children absorb and in a few schools I have encountered potential future reptile enthusiasts, reminding me of my own school days.
Many Herefordshire schools now have wildlife areas within their grounds and through the project they can learn how to attract some of our more unusual native species. Slow-worms and grass snakes are the species most likely associated with gardens, parks and more built-up areas and likely candidates as a surprise garden sighting. We happily encourage birds with feeders and nest boxes but to have a beautiful slow-worm basking on the compost heap or grass snake swimming in the garden pond is a really notable and exciting encounter when you realise how secretive these creatures are.
Already 'What's That Snake?' has visited 14 schools in the county, seeing over 1000 children, and the response has been tremendous. The project has planned to visit up to 30 more schools during its two year period. With such positive feedback a What's That Snake? DVD and worksheet pack for schools are being planned.
Community road shows, with dedicated advice and visual displays and a stunning banner with an image of the adder are happening throughout the summer. A species identification recording leaflet for people to take away and fill in their reptile sightings has been distributed through these events and is also available from the Herefordshire Nature Trust. A reptile habitat management guide for landowners will also soon be available. There is also a web page linked to the Herefordshire Amphibian and Reptile Team site (www.herefordhart.org) to keep the public informed of the project's activities.
Outdoor guided walks and play activities linked to Herefordshire Nature Trust's Wildplay with a reptile theme, have been very popular with parents and children.
Reptiles are very much indicators of the health of our countryside and What's That Snake? will hopefully give us an idea of how these indicators are faring.
If you would like to come along to one of the training events, pass on any records of snake or lizard sightings, book a talk for a school or group, or have more information about this project then please contact me, Nigel Hand, Project Officer, at The Herefordshire Nature Trust, tel: 01432 356872
Herefordshire Nature Trust and Herefordshire Amphibian and Reptile Team are supported by their members.
If you are interested in joining either organisation please ring 01432 356872. www.herefordshirewt.org