With world shut down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
I spent a lot of time over the Easter weekend hacking through the jungle of Pendulous Sedge that has grown up around our pond. Over the past few years it’s really taken over and has become so dense that hardly any light was getting to the pond itself. Today, for the first time in years, I can actually see the pond and it looks so much healthier with some light and warmth upon it.
I was admiring it this morning when I saw that the first Large Red Damselflies were emerging. These incredible insects would have spent the last two years in their larval stage as vicious Alien-like predators in the bottom of the pond. Now they are climbing out of the murky depths, bursting out of their larval skins and emerging as beautiful damselflies. I was trying to get a photo of one while it grabbed onto a rush and dried its wings before its first flight. Damselflies are tricky blighters to photograph. They are so slender that the camera seems to find it hard to focus on them. I did get one photo that was (sort of) in focus.
...But most of the time the camera kept focussing on the far bank of the pond.
And it was there, on the pond's distant shore, that I could have sworn I saw something moving. I zoomed in with the camera and took a photo of this.
Oh. My. God. There was a Grass Snake sunbathing on the edge of my pond! It coolly slid off the bank and under the water. I could see it swimming below the surface and, as it came up for air, I managed to get another snap before it submerged again and I lost it. This is only the second time in eight years I've seen a snake in the garden.
When I was a boy I thought you could only find snakes in the deepest, darkest jungles. I used to love watching those black and white Tarzan movies starring actor (and Olympic swimmer) Johnny Weissmuller (here). In those movies snakes would hang off every African jungle branch. There was something about them I found seductive and exotic. Something else I found seductive and exotic was Annabella Lwin, singer of new-wave pop group Bow Wow Wow. I can clearly remember seeing her on Top of the Pops back in 1982 singing "Go wild in the country, where snakes in the grass are absolutely free" (here). Next morning Annabella was the talk of the playground, but it was that chorus that stuck with me; a clarion call for early eighties urbanites to get out into the wild...and find some snakes.
It turned out Annabella was ecologically correct. There are absolutely three snakes in the English countryside. The Smooth Snake lives on the sandy heaths of the South. It's found at a few locations in Sussex where it has been introduced. The Adder can be seen in our county's drier habitats: the South Downs and heathland. But the Grass Snake is the species you may be lucky enough to see in your garden.
The Grass Snake really is a gorgeous creature. Mesmerising eyes, sleek scales of olive-green and a series of stripes along its flanks. For a cold-blooded reptile it sure looks hot. A key identification feature is that yellow collar encircling the back of its head.
(Grass Snake, photo by Derek Middleton)
Just a few years back genetic research discovered that our Grass Snakes differ from other European Grass Snakes and so our Grass Snake has been renamed Barred Grass Snake. Either way Grass Snakes have been rather short-changed when it comes to their name. Sure, they can slither through the grass but their real talent is that they are amazing swimmers (a bit like Johnny Weissmuller who performed better as swimmer in the Olympic pool than as Tarzan on dry land). Surely Water Snake or even Swimmy Snake (or Weissmuller's Snake?) would be a more suitable name. You’ll find Grass Snakes gliding through the wet ditches and dykes (and my garden pond) where they hunt for their favourite food: frogs, toads and newts.
(Grass Snake, photo by Alan Humphries)
But these amphibious feasts really pile on the pounds, so when their snakeskin suits become too tight, they slip their skin to reveal a larger shiny set of scales underneath. They undertake several costume changes each year and can grow to an impressive size. Two-three foot is typical for an adult Grass Snake. Of course they’re nothing be scared of. Grass Snakes freak out if threatened and they either pretend to be dead, hiss a lot or “release a pungent, foul-smelling substance from their anal gland”. In July the female snake excavates a chamber in a mound of decaying vegetation – a compost heap is perfect. Inside she lays 5-20 leathery eggs and the heap’s heat and humidity cook them to perfection. Set your egg timer for ten weeks and you’ll return to find pencil sized snakes emerging into the world.
For now I'm just thrilled to know I have a snake sunbathing in my garden. It was certainly worth a weekend cutting back all that shady sedge and letting some sunshine into to the pond.
I have a compost heap in a dark corner of the garden but now I'm thinking about creating another compost heap just for my snakes so I've been looking online. Apparently a Grass Snake Compost Heap needs to be as big as possible, in a sunny spot (close to a hedge or ground cover) and made of compost, kitchen waste, grass cuttings, manure, dead leaves or sawdust.
It seems a base layer of twigs and small branches is a good idea too.
I should avoid turning the heap between mid-June and late September, as that's when the eggs and young may be inside.
OK, sounds like a little future project for me. Another thing to take my mind off the pandemic.