April in the Forest

We all love a bit of sunshine and our reptiles (lizards, slow worms and snakes) love it even more. They don’t have a mammal’s ability to regulate their body temperatures so they need to move to a place of greater or lesser warmth to keep their metabolism at an optimum temperature. A big stone or patch of dry bracken can provide a nice, warm spot in the sun but exposes them to the watchful eyes of predators such as buzzards. You may have been lucky to find them under tarpaulins or in piles of composting plant material, but deliberately providing basking places gives you a much greater chance of seeing them and gives these declining species of wildlife some much-needed help.

We used to see slow worms very occasionally when we first came to the farm but it was generally when our chickens, which were then very free-ranging, caught one and fought each other for the privilege of eating the poor creature. Now we have several pieces of corrugated iron (also known as ‘wriggly tin’ but made of steel in any case!) placed around the farm and lift them from time to time during the summer to see what we can see! These ‘refugia’ can also be made out of roofing felt or Onduline and need to be placed beside long vegetation which will allow the creatures to move safely to and fro. There are certainly many more reptilian visitors than we would have known about otherwise, and they are often joined under the tin sheets by black ants and voles, both of which like to make nests in the warm, dry conditions. Our best count so far was on a warm August day last year when we had a total of 11 grass snakes and 15 slow worms under 5 of the tins. I chose this subject for the April article because this is usually the earliest month when we can expect to see any reptiles, although we have already seen a small slow worm in March this year. In September we often find several grass snake skins either under the tins, by rocks or in the wood pile: anywhere where the snake can take cover while using a rough edge to help slough off the old skin which it has grown out of. The photos show a grass snake and the creepy-looking head end of a shed skin. This one was 96cm long and was probably from a female.

Incidentally, grass snakes do not have a venomous bite and so are completely harmless. They have learnt to keep away from people and will take cover as soon as they feel the vibrations of approaching steps, so if you see one you can feel very honoured!

Linda Iles