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A combination of lizards and snakes make up the reptile population in the UK. Reptiles are animals with bodies covered with bony plates, scales or both. They are cold-blooded animals, unable to maintain a constant internal body temperature. In order to stay warm, they rely on the sun and their environment. During winter, they undergo brumation, a hibernation-like state, wherein they become less active. Some reptiles lay eggs, while others, like those found in the Scottish Highlands, give birth to live young.
In the UK, there are seven native reptile species made up of three lizards and four snakes. Below are descriptions of these reptiles and places where you may find them.
Forget about their name because these animals are not worms or snakes. Slow worms (Anguis fragilis) are legless lizards with an average length of 40 centimetres. Their colour ranges from grey to brown and their scales appear shiny and smooth. Males are typically smaller than females; they also tend to have silvery skin. Some of them also have blue spots. Meanwhile, females bear a black stripe on their back and have dark brown flanks. Juveniles look like females but sport a black spot on top of their head.
Slow worms, which are ovoviviparous – give birth to live young, are very common around mainland Britain. In Scotland, they are mainly concentrated in the highlands. They are found in moist grassy areas, woodland and even gardens. They prefer to spend their time underground or underneath things which is why it can be difficult to see them. If you wish to see slow worms, try Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.
These creatures are not just the most common lizards in the UK; they are also the most common reptiles in the country. Common lizards (Zootoca vvipara) greatly vary in colour – grey, brown, green, yellow and even black. However, most of them have medium brown skin and sport stripes and spots which are darker or lighter than their skin colour. One way of distinguishing males from females is to check their underside. Males tend to have yellow, orange, red or white undersides, while females usually have grey or green.
They also give birth to live young, thus their alternative name, viviparous lizard. Widely distributed all over the UK, common lizards are said to be the only native reptiles found in Ireland. They live in varied habitats, from moors and heaths to ditches and sea cliffs. One of the best places to see common lizards is at Gilfach Farms where large groups congregate on a boardwalk during summer.
Sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) may grow up to 25 centimetres long. They are mostly brown in colour with distinct eyespots, dark patches or circles with light centres, on their back and flanks. During the mating season, the flanks of male sand lizards turn bright green. Of the three lizard species found in the UK, the sand lizards are the only egg-laying type.
As their name suggests, sand lizards live in heaths with sandy soils and areas with sand dunes. Females lay their eggs on the sandy burrows. These lizards are rare in the UK. Their population is confined in areas like Hampshire and Dorset. The ancient dunes at Sandwich and Pegwell Bay, Kent’s biggest nature reserve, are worth checking if you want to see these elusive lizards.
Often referred to as stocky snakes, adders (Vipera berus) may grow up to 70 centimetres long. Famous for being the only venomous reptile in the UK, adders are often identified through the zigzag or diamond-shaped markings on their back. These markings are usually black in males and dark brown in females. In terms of skin colour, male adders are generally grey, and females are light brown. A pupil that’s vertically slit is another distinct feature adders have.
Adders give birth to live young which do not feed on a live prey until they are a year old. These snakes favour places which have ample amount of sunlight like open woodland and moorland. The best time to see them is in March when they come out of brumation. Visit Allerthorpe Common and Fen Bog on a sunny morning and find these snakes enjoying the sunlight.
Smooth snakes (Coronella austriaca) have a dark, crown-like or butterfly-shaped mark on their head. They possess a visible stripe or line on each side of the head, too. These non-venomous snakes also have smooth, flat scales with a slender body. Their colouration ranges from brown to grey.
Smooth snakes are extremely rare in the UK. Just like sandy lizards, their population is restricted in sandy heathlands and bogs. Their breeding period is around April to June. They give birth in September or October, much later than grass snakes and adders.
Common Grass Snakes
The largest land reptiles in the UK, common grass snakes (Natrix natrix) can grow up to a metre long. Their body colour varies from brown to greyish green and dark olive. They have an identifiable black and cream or yellow neck collar. The sides of their body have black markings or bars. Female common grass snakes lay 10-40 eggs in warm areas like compost heap and rotting vegetation. These snakes prey on what’s available for the season.
Common grass snakes detect ground vibrations very well. This allows them to hide before anyone could spot them. They are found all over England and Wales but absent in Scotland. They are usually seen in woodland and heathland like Bovey Heathfield. You may also find them in wetland like marshes and lakes.
Barred Grass Snakes
The barred grass snakes (Natrix helvetica) are the latest native snake species to be discovered in the UK. Initially, scientists thought that they were the same species as common grass snakes. However, in 2017, it was confirmed that they were a different species.
Compared to the common grass snakes, barred grass snakes are greyer and have more visible dark bands on their body. They also lack the distinctive black and cream or yellow neck collar common grass snakes have. Their known habitats include grasslands and heaths with nearby bodies of water like ponds.
Aside from those mentioned above, there are also turtle species found in the UK’s waters. Other reptiles found in the country include non-native lizard and snake species like the common wall lizard, western green lizard and the Aesculapian snake.
Slow worm photo by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors
Common lizard photo by Chris Parker2012
Sand lizard photo by Ordinary Extraordinary World
Adder photo by Michiel Thomas
Smooth snake photo by jansokoly
Common grass snake photo by Bengt Nyman
Barred grass snake photo by berniedup