Among the different animals in the world, studies show that snakes are included in the list of most feared creatures globally. Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is a very common phobia worldwide. Some experts have even said that the fear of snakes is an innate tendency that humans have developed in the past centuries. However, despite snakes being scary, they actually play a very important role in our ecosystem. Being both predator and prey, the absence of snakes will affect the population of their preys and predators and would result in the imbalance of the ecosystem.
In the United Kingdom, there are four native species of snakes: the adder, grass snake, smooth snake and barred grass snake.
Adders, Vipera berus, are the only venomous snakes which are native to the UK. Among all snakes, they are also noted for their highly developed venom injecting mechanism. However, adders are not aggressive snakes. They only bite or use their venom as a last resort. In Britain, there are no recorded human deaths caused by adders in the past 20 years. As long as the bite is treated properly, nausea, swelling and bruising are the worst effects that can be experienced by someone who’s bitten by an adder.
They can be distinguished by the zigzag pattern from head to tail and spots on their sides. Males are usually white or grey with a black zigzag. Females have dark brown zigzag markings and light brown coloured bodies. There are some adders which are pure black though and are often mistaken as another species. Male adders can grow up to 60 centimetres in length and can weigh up to 60 grams. Female adders can reach 75 centimetres and weigh up to 100 grams. Their lifespan is estimated to be around 20 years. While there is no accurate estimate on their population, adders are the most common snakes in the UK.
They usually feed on frogs, rodents, newt and lizards. They use their venom to subdue their prey. Adders can be found in Bradgate Park located in Leicestershire. You may also find them in Dumfries and Galloway, Worcestershire or South Yorkshire.
Common grass snakes, Natrix natrix, are sometimes called “water snakes” as they are often found near the water and feed on amphibians, usually toads and frogs. These non-venomous snakes have a brown or dark green colour with a distinctive yellow collar behind its head. Some can also have a grey or black colour. The darker colours are more common in colder areas. They can grow up to more than 100 centimetres and weigh up to 240 grams.
Grass snakes feed on newts, toads, frogs and lizards. Sometimes they also eat fish. These snakes can usually be found in the lowlands of Britain. It is common in the areas south or southeast of England. Few can be found in Central Wales, but it’s quite rare. Meanwhile, there is no grass snake population reported in Scotland. In fact, the adder is the only native snake found in Scottish areas.
Smooth snakes, Coronella austriaca, are also non-venomous snakes. Like adders, they are recognised as native to the UK. They have grey, brown or reddish colouration with two rows of spots running down their back. There are also some spots on the sides of the smooth snake. Both male and female smooth snakes can grow up to 60 to 75 centimetres and can weigh up to 150 grams. Due to the patterns on their back, smooth snakes are sometimes mistaken for adders. However, these patterns are less developed compared to the venomous adder. In addition to this, smooth snakes have a more slender body and also have round pupils.
The diet of smooth snakes consists of small mammals, lizards and smaller snakes. They strike their preys and subdue them by constriction. However, they are not like true constrictors such as boas that kill their preys through constriction. They instead eat their preys alive. Smooth snakes are the rarest among the snakes in the UK, so it may be difficult to find them. However, to increase your chances of seeing one, head to Surrey, Dorset, Hampshire, Devon and West Sussex where they are commonly seen.
Barred Grass Snakes
In 2017, a fourth species was added to the list. The barred grass snakes, Natrix helvetica, are now recognised as species distinct from the common grass snakes.
These non-venomous snakes are more greyish in colour which differentiates them from the grass snakes which are usually green or brown. Furthermore, their bodies have dark bands which are more prominent than what the grass snakes have. Most importantly, the barred grass snakes lack the most distinct feature of the grass snakes which is the yellow collar.
Barred grass snakes eat frogs, toads and newts. They can grow up to 100 centimetres long and can weigh more than 200 grams. They are widely distributed in the entire UK including Southern Scotland.
Snakes are interesting creatures. However, please do not approach or touch them when you encounter these slithery animals. Furthermore, it is prohibited to catch, injure or kill them since all snakes in the UK are protected species.