We may not find it easy to love snakes and toads but they are both an integral part of almost every Norfolk habitat and in need of our conservation efforts. Norfolk Wildlife Trust Ambassador DR BEN GARROD reveals just how fascinating our reptiles and amph
It’s the adder, of course, with Norfolk Wildlife Trust
I UNDERSTAND that not everybody loves snakes or that toads don’t generally make us smile and coo in the same way a baby robin might. But Norfolk is home to most of the reptiles and amphibians found in the UK and I think, with a little bit of an introduction, you still may not all find a grass snake beautiful but you will hopefully see why it and its relatives are an important part of our wild Norfolk landscape.
The adder is the smaller of our two wild snakes occurring in Norfolk, with adults reaching up to around 55cm in length. They have a fairly heavy body with a prominent zig-zag stripe along the middle of the back and have a dark red eye with a vertical slit in the pupil (similar to a cat’s).
They hibernate from October to late February or early March, so should be emerging soon from their winter rest. Adders can be found in a wide variety of habitats in Norfolk but are especially common at the edges of woods and copses, in sunny forest patches and on sandy heaths and coastal dunes.
While they are our only venomous reptile and should never be handled, they are nevertheless fascinating animals and if you are very lucky, you may see males performing the ‘dance of the adder’ at the start of the breeding season in April, where they compete to breed with females by raising their heads vertically, high up from the ground. There they intertwine and sway together until (at least between them) there is an obvious victor.
Our ‘other’ snake is the longer grass snake. These beautiful olive green reptiles can reach lengths of almost one metre long. Their bright yellow collar helps distinguish these nonvenomous snakes from their viper cousins and unlike adders, these snakes lay eggs, often nesting in manure piles or compost heaps, where the heat helps to incubate the clutch. Grass snakes are associated with wet habitats and can often be found in water meadows and around ditches, lakes and ponds.
They are excellent swimmers and while they prey on a range of small animals, they favour their amphibian cousins, frogs, toads and newts. Because they cannot defend themselves with venom, grass snakes instead play dead, rolling onto their back and opening their mouth as if in some grotesque death rictus. If that wasn’t enough, they emit a foul-smelling secretion from their anal glands to convince any would be predator that they are in fact already dead and not worth eating.
We are lucky enough to have two other reptiles in Norfolk. The common lizard, which is widespread here and can be found on dunes, commons, heaths, bogs and meadows, and the slow worm, which may look like a snake but is a lizard without legs (and yes, there is a difference).
Although they are only small, reaching around 18cm long, they are voracious predators and can devour 20 slugs in as many minutes. They are found along the Holt-Cromer ridge, throughout central and south-east Norfolk and in the north-western part of the region.