For many people it comes as a surprise that Britain is home to a number of snakes – especially when they see one in real life! You’re more likely to see our native snakes during the summer months, as this is when they are most active.
For those of you not familiar with Britain’s native snakes, here’s an introduction:
Grass snake (Natrix natrix)
Our longest snake can reach 150 centimetres in length and is found in England and Wales. Grass snakes are usually olive-green, with a distinctive yellow/black collar behind the head.
Great swimmers, grass snakes are commonly found near water (such as garden ponds), as they feed mainly on amphibians and fish. Our only egg-laying snake, they lay eggs in rotting material, such as compost heaps, where the warmth helps incubation.
Harmless and shy, the most common sighting of a grass snake is a fleeting glimpse as it moves quickly away.
Adder (Vipera berus)
Found in limited areas of England, Wales and Scotland, this snake has distinctive zig-zag markings along the body and a dark-coloured ‘V’ on the head. Females give birth to an average of eight live young in August/September.
Adders prefer open habitats (heathland, moorland, woodland), hunting small mammals and lizards. Rarely found in gardens – reports of adders in gardens commonly turn out to be grass snakes or slow-worms.
Adders avoid humans wherever possible, but if you do come across one don’t try to touch it! The adder is our only venomous snake and the majority of bites occur when a snake is disturbed or deliberately antagonised. Death from adder bites is rare in humans as the venom is not very potent, but bites are painful and can become more serious if left untreated. If someone has been bitten, keep the victim as calm and quiet as possible and seek immediate medical help.
Adder bites can be extremely dangerous to pets (particularly if the animal is bitten on the face), causing swelling, bleeding or fever, and dogs walked in adder habitats during spring and summer are more at risk. Animals with suspected adder bites should be kept as quiet and calm as possible, and examined urgently by a vet.
Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)
Britain’s rarest snake grows up to 70 centimetres long and is coloured grey or brown, with dark spots down the back and a butterfly-wing shape on the head. The smooth snake is found only in heathland areas of England (Surrey, Dorset, Hampshire and West Sussex).
This rare and protected snake preys on common lizards, slow-worms and small mammals and is harmless to humans and pets. You’d be lucky to see one, as even when basking this secretive animal hides underneath stones and rocks, or entwined in vegetation.
This is not a snake:
Slow-worm (Anguis fragilis)
Commonly mistaken for a snake, the slow-worm is actually a legless lizard! Adults grow up to 50 centimetres long, are shiny and brown or grey in colour. Slow-worms live in compost heaps, under sheds or logs and eat slugs and snails.
Are snakes legally protected?
Snakes (and slow-worms) are protected by law; it’s an offence to intentionally injure, kill or trade a wild snake. Smooth snakes have additional protection – it’s an offence to capture or disturb a smooth snake, or to damage or destroy their habitat.
Before undertaking development of land it’s important that developers ensure that snakes living in the area are not at risk and it may be necessary to relocate the animals to another suitable area. You can help by reporting any snake sightings to your local Amphibian and Reptile Group (ARG) or Biological Record Centre.
Help! I’ve seen a snake!
Don’t be alarmed! Snakes are shy animals and will normally move off quickly on approach.
If you do come across a snake – don’t touch! With the exception of the adder British snakes are harmless, but it could be an escaped pet which may be venomous. If you suspect the snake is an exotic pet rather than a native species – keep a safe distance and call the RSPCA’s 24-hour helpline 0300 1234 999 for advice.
How can I help the snakes in my garden?
Snakes like ‘wild’ areas – piles of leaves or logs, long grass. Keep an area of the garden untouched and undisturbed – with a compost heap if possible. A garden pond will provide food for grass snakes.
Each year we admit snakes to our wildlife centres with gardening-related injuries. Take two minutes to check for wildlife before mowing or strimming. Netting used for gardening or sports can easily trap snakes and other animals, resulting in injury or death; check netting daily for trapped animals and remove netting when no longer in use.
What if I don’t want snakes in my garden?
Snakes avoid humans wherever possible – you may not even realise that you share your garden with one! However if you’re not comfortable with the idea of snakes in your garden, the best deterrent is to remove whatever attracts them;
- remove wood piles, leaf litter and keep grass short
- use an enclosed compost bin
- increase activity in the garden – snakes shy away from busy areas
- repair holes and cracks in walls and patios (make sure there are no animals inside first).
There’s a snake in my garden that needs help – what do I do?
A native snake that doesn’t move away when approached may be injured or sick. For help with a snake you think is injured or sick, please call our 24-hour helpline on 0300 1234 999.
Nicola White – scientific officer, RSPCA wildlife department