I've seen a snake in my garden

What kind of snake is it?

There are three species of snake native to the UK but only two are commonly seen in Sussex: the grass snake and the adder. Grass snakes are large, up to 150 cm long, and have a black and cream/yellow collar just behind their head and a series of 'dots and dashes' running down each side of their body. Adders are smaller, around 60 to 80 cm and have a 'V' or an 'X' on their head with a thick black zigzag running down the top of their back. The third snake, the smooth snake is extremely rare in Sussex and would never be seen in a garden.

How common are snakes in gardens?

Grass snakes are by far the commoner garden visitor but it does depend on where you live. In urban areas, neither snake is common but in semi-rural locations or in gardens that back onto wild areas the chances of seeing a snake are higher. Adders do not regularly visit gardens but if you live for example in the middle of the Ashdown Forest or close to the heathland areas around Midhurst, then an adder may be slightly more of a possibility. Of all the reports we receive of snakes in gardens, 99% are grass snakes rather then adders.

Why do snakes come into gardens?

Grass snakes most often come into gardens looking for food. They mainly feed on amphibians and small fish so garden ponds can be an attractive hunting ground. They can also be attracted to large compost heaps where they sometimes lay their eggs. Adders do not like to be disturbed, so will avoid areas with people. But they will occasionally pass through gardens on route to somewhere else.

Should I be scared that the snake will bite me?

Grass snakes are non-venomous and completely harmless but adders can give a nasty bite. This is not something to be overly worried about as both snakes dislike being disturbed, and if they sense that something big is coming they will simply slither away undercover. Adders do not want to waste their venom biting something they can’t eat so will only use it to defend themselves as a last resort. There are only around 100 adder bites reported in the UK each year, and the vast majority of these come from people who tried to pick up a snake.

What happens if I get bitten?

According to the NHS: ‘Adder bites can be painful but they are rarely serious. In most cases the only treatment required is observation in hospital. As a precaution, you may be asked to stay in hospital for 24 hours to be monitored. Anti-venom medication is an effective antidote to snake venom and can be used to treat more severe snake bites’. Since records began in 1876 there have been 14 reported deaths as a result of adder bites, with the last death occurring in 1975 - but this was thought to be due to complications with early anti-venoms. If you are unlucky enough to get bitten it’s a good idea to go to your nearest Accident and Emergency and get checked over.

What about dogs?

Adder bites are more common in dogs and can be more serious. That said, a recent report produced by the Veterinary Poisons Information Service found that over the past 25 years only a very small proportion of dogs bitten by adders in the UK died, and that dogs who received anti-venom treatment were much more likely to recover quickly. So if you are in an area where adders are common, it’s a good idea to keep your dog on a lead during spring and summer and if you suspect an adder bite, take your dog to the vet.

Posted in: Frogs, Toads and Snakes on 13 July 2015

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