Britain's rarest reptile

19 August 2020 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , reptiles
Britain's rarest reptile
Smooth Snake by Derek Middleton

By Charlotte Owen, WildCall Officer

The Smooth Snake is Britain’s rarest reptile. It lives on sandy heathland - another rarity - and is only found in Dorset and Hampshire, with a handful of sites in Surrey and a single, precious location in West Sussex. This extra-special resident still takes some finding, even when you're in the right place. It is extremely secretive, rarely emerging from the dense vegetation of its heathland home and hiding under sun-baked stones and logs rather than basking in the open. When it does venture out, its cryptic camouflage blends seamlessly into the dry leaves and stems underfoot.

Smooth Snakes look a bit like Adders but slimmer, and without a venomous bite. The name refers to their scales, which are smooth in comparison to the keeled scales of Grass Snakes and Adders. The keel is a central ridge like the quill of a feather or the main vein of a leaf, and keeled scales feel rough to the touch – not that stroking a snake is ever recommended. Without these ridges, the Smooth Snake’s scales lie flatter and have a sleeker, almost polished appearance. This is an adaptation to help them move smoothly through the tangled jungle of heather and grass, and while they may be slower as a result they are much more manoeuvrable. This is a valuable trait for an ambush predator, able to glide silently into the perfect position before lying in wait for as long as it takes, entwined and invisible in the undergrowth. More often than not, their prey is another reptile – a Common Lizard, Sand Lizard or Slow Worm. They will even eat other snakes as well as small mammals, birds and anything else they can swallow, grabbing them with a lightning-fast strike before coiling around them to apply a crushing squeeze.

Late summer should see a boost in numbers as this year’s young emerge. Females incubate their eggs internally, eventually giving birth to between four and 15 live young – perfect, pencil-sized miniatures with a distinctive black crown. They will stay with her for a few days before disappearing into the heather, bolstering one of the best-kept secrets of the heath.