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Releasing Grass Snakes Into the Wild: A Case Study

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 16 May 2016 | comments*Discuss
 
Grass Snakes Compost Eggs Hatchlings

Although the grass snake (Natrix natrix) naturally lays its eggs in piles of rotting vegetation alongside the ponds and lakes it frequents, where the natural warmth produced helps with incubation, it also has a reputation for occasionally building its nest in compost heaps. As keen gardener – and lifelong snake fan – Jake Sedge discovered to his delight, the stories are all true, but that left him with one obvious problem. Having played ‘nurse’ to a clutch of eggs, what do you do with the baby snakes that hatched?

A Lucky Find

It all began one mid-summer’s day when he was turning his compost heap. “I couldn’t believe my luck, when I found them” he says. “As a kid, I’d read about it in all the books and I used to drive my dad mad raking thorough his compost heap hoping to find some and then, after all those years, I did.”

Carefully putting everything back the way it was, he quickly realised that when the time eventually came for the little snakes to make their own way in the world, the nearest body of water for them to go hunting in was in the local park – and hardly an ideal habitat.

“I’ve got a good friend at the wildlife trust,” Jake explains, “so I knew he’d know what to do.”

A quick phone call – and a long meeting at the local pub – later and between them, they had the answer. As luck would have it, the local wildlife trust had just become involved in a new lake and wetland management project; it was the ideal place for any newly hatched snake to begin its life.

Hatching

Jake watched over his charges during the coming days and weeks, anxiously awaiting any signs of hatching, and by the end of August, it began. “It was brilliant to see the first ones appear,” he says, “but I was a bit sad too, knowing they’d soon be going away. Daft really – like some big kid!”

Following the advice of his friend, he had prepared temporary accommodation to house the early hatchers while he waited to make sure that there were no more to come. In the end, out of a clutch of 17 eggs, he ended up with 14 glossy babies, while two failed to hatch and one enterprising hatchling appears to have slipped away into his herbaceous border unseen.

Although young grass snakes can fend for themselves perfectly well from the moment they hatch, if they are to survive their first winter, they need to build up a good food reserve before the increasing cold of late September drives them into hibernation. That meant getting the hatchlings installed in their new home was now a real priority.

Released into the Wild

As with many of Britain’s native reptile species, a proper habitat is essential for survival and the loss of so many of the traditional countryside ponds and wetlands has had a major impact on the grass snake. A staggering 75 per cent of the ponds present in England and Wales during the 19th Century had vanished by the end of the 20th and while some of the creatures that they supported, such as frogs, have successfully managed to exploit our passion for garden ponds, the grass snake is often seen as a much less welcome visitor. Finding the perfect place for a band of small snakes isn’t always as easy as it fortunately turned out to be in this case.

Releasing them was a very low key affair. “We just put the tank down on the bank beside the water and let them get on with it,” Jake recalls. “They took to it, well – I was going to say like a duck to water – but you know what I mean,” he laughs.

Jake has an open invitation to visit the site and he’s been back many times since the youngsters were released in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of ‘his’ snakes in the wild. “I haven’t seen any yet,” he confides, “but I'm sure I will do, one day.”

As unofficial – and unexpected – captive breeding programmes go, it sounds as if this one worked out pretty well.

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steve - Your Question:
Hi. I am Secretary to the Aylmerton pond restoration Group. We have a village pond, which we are working on; to reproduce a wildlife habitat for our indigenous British wild life. We have so far installed bird boxes and bat boxes and are working on a filtration reed bed, to improve water quality. It is very rural with trees and lots of protection and arable land. My thoughts are that if we produce a compost type heap with some low ground steel or plastic panes for snakes and slow worms,. we should have an ideal habitat. Our constitution is for promoting a small scale nature reserve for a community facility and tourists to appreciate and an educational venue for schools and interested parties. We do not have any Grass Snakes reported in the area, but we are sure that the habitat is good as our water source feeds the Norfolk broads and see know reason other than neglect of our environment, as to why they should not thrive. We want to get it right if grass snakes are introduced. If you can give some help we would be most pleased. Kind Regards Steve

Our Response:
While in decline nationally the elusive grass snake is quite common near wetland areas as it likes to hunt for pond amphibians. Early spring is the best time to see them. It seems you are putting the right conditions in place to certainly encourage them. As you probably know your compost heap will attract the snakes due to the warmth and moistness (as it is a perfect place to lay and incubate eggs). So my advice is to place the compost heap in a sunny spot close to a hedge and make it as large as you can. Make sure you keep adding to it and ensure there is enough give in it so the snakes can have easy access (but don't turn the heap between June and December as you may disturb the eggs). Be warned though resident cats or dogs may keep the snakes away.The rest is down to luck, but we've a nice warm spring so far, so hopefully luck will be on your side.
ReptileExpert - 17-May-16 @ 2:01 PM
Hi. I am Secretary to the Aylmerton pond restoration Group. We have a village pond, which we are working on; to reproduce a wildlife habitat for our indigenous British wild life. We have so far installed bird boxes and bat boxes and are working on a filtration reed bed, to improve water quality. It is very rural with trees and lots of protection and arable land. My thoughts are that if we produce a compost type heap with some low ground steel or plastic panes for snakes and slow worms,. we should have an ideal habitat. Our constitution is for promoting a small scale nature reserve for a community facility and tourists to appreciate and an educational venue for schools and interested parties. We do not have any Grass Snakes reported in the area, but we are sure that the habitat is good as our water source feeds the Norfolk broads and see know reason other than neglect of our environment, as to why they should not thrive. We want to get it right if grass snakes are introduced. If you can give some help we would be most pleased. Kind Regards Steve
steve - 16-May-16 @ 8:59 PM
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