by Charlotte Owen
The mere mention of the word snake will make some people shudder but these fascinating creatures have been creating a ripple of excitement at Woods Mill recently. A spell of spring sunshine tempted grass snakes out of hibernation to bask in its warmth amongst the reedbeds in impressive numbers, drawing an audience of eager onlookers armed with binoculars and long lenses to catch a glimpse of these otherwise elusive reptiles. And the snakes delivered, forming a tangle of between 12 and 24 scaly bodies entwined amongst the reeds, probably a single female attended by many males all jostling for position – a real wildlife spectacle.
It may seem unusual to find grass snakes in a reedbed but they are particularly fond of wetland habitats and are excellent swimmers, using both sight and smell to target their amphibian prey on land and in the water. Frogs, toads and newts are all aquatic at this time of year, so grass snakes are often seen in ponds and lakes during early spring, where they will also feed on small fish. Later in the summer, when amphibians move back out onto the land, the grass snakes follow suit and can be seen in drier and more open habitats including woodland edges, grassy field margins and gardens.
The grass snake is our commonest and largest snake, reaching a record size of up to 190 cm (6ft 3in) - but such giants are really quite rare, and grass snakes are completely harmless to humans. Females usually grow to around a metre long and are significantly larger than males, which are up to 50 cm shorter and have much slimmer bodies. Colouration can be quite variable, ranging from olive-green to brown to grey, usually with a pattern of dark dots and dashes along the flanks and a paler, creamy underside, also with a chequered black pattern.With a good enough view, it’s possible to distinguish individual grass snakes by their unique personal patterns but one thing they all have in common is a distinctive black and cream ‘collar’ behind the head. Their courtship will continue throughout April, and eggs are normally laid in June.