When you think of snakes, you might picture a fat boa constrictor basking beside a Brazilian river, or a king cobra rearing up from the dust of an Indian plain. Snakes seem too exotic for the often cold, wet and windy weather of the UK. But snakes are adaptable creatures, found on every continent but Antarctica. We actually have three native species in Great Britain, though none are found in Ireland. Legend has it that St. Patrick drove them out, but in fact they never reached Ireland in the first place.
To cope with our harsh winters, all of our snakes go into hibernation for the coldest months, typically from October to March. They emerge in spring, when they can often be seen basking to warm up. Courtship begins and by late summer, young pencil-sized snakes start to appear.
The biggest: grass snake
The grass snake is our longest snake, growing to well over a metre. They're usually a grey-green colour and most easily recognised by the black and yellow collar behind the head. They have dark eyes with round pupils, whereas adders have elliptical pupils in their bright red eyes.
Grass snakes can be found across England and Wales, in areas with long grass often near water, including garden ponds. They’re excellent swimmers and regularly feed on fish, frogs, toads and newts. Grass snakes are our only egg-laying native snake. They lay 30-40 eggs in warm, sheltered places like piles of rotting vegetation and compost heaps. The young snakes are pencil-sized and hatch in August and September.
Grass snakes are not venomous. They’re very shy creatures and will quickly slither away if they are disturbed. If they don’t have an escape route, they may play dead and roll onto their back with their tongue hanging out. As a last resort, if they’re handled, they can also release a foul-smelling liquid from their vent.