After an absence of more than half a century, Britain’s rarest reptile, the Smooth Snake ( Coronella austriaca) is set to return to Devon as part of a project undertaken by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, the RSPB and the local conservation trust.
These rare and secretive snakes were last recorded in the county in the 1950s, when the growing pace of development and habitat loss forced them from much of their natural range across southern England, leaving them restricted to the heath-lands of Dorset, Hampshire Surrey and Sussex. Unfortunately, despite the major restoration work of recent decades, Smooth Snakes are not a particularly mobile species and despite good populations in a range of fragmented and isolated sites, left to their own devices, they do not re-colonise adjoining areas well – something this initiative intends to address.
In the summer of 2009, herpetologists working under licence from English Nature, collected ten individuals from several of Dorset’s large populations for release into a specially chosen section of one of the RSPB’s heath-land reserves. Selection of the right habitat obviously forms a crucial element in the success of the project and the site picked is ideal and also enjoys the protection of being a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.
It is fitting that the first attempt at reintroducing this elusive and rather timid reptile should be made in east Devon, since the RSPB and a range of other local and national conservation bodies have been working on restoring the area’s heath-land since the early 1980s. To date, this has helped support resurgent populations of a range of important heath-land species, including the nightjar, Dartford Warbler, Southern Damselfly and Silver-Studded Blue Butterfly. Pulling off the successful reintroduction of the Smooth Snake has been described as “the icing on the cake” by the reserve’s manager, Toby Taylor.
The Smooth Snake is a priority species in the UK, as well as being listed in Appendix II of the Berne Convention – making them one of the most highly protected species of European reptiles. If this initial introduction does ultimately turn out as well as early indications seem to suggest, conserving them might be about to get even more of a helping hand. More releases are planned over the next few summers to help establish a viable new breeding population on the site, but that is only the beginning. With so much habitat restoration work having taken place within what was once prime Smooth Snake territory over the last couple of decades, there are now many more places which could support their own colonies and the long-term goal of conservationists is to see these reptiles return to many more of their ancestral sites.
The key to successful reintroduction of a species like this one, which is so completely dependent on its heath-land habitat is, of course, the quality of those heaths themselves – and this is something that the Devon project has particularly in its favour. The environment is as near perfect for Smooth Snakes as it’s possible to get, but other good quality habitats await elsewhere and hopefully it will only be a matter of time before the whole reintroduction initiative rolls out to cover an even wider area. If so, what is happening now in Devon, could soon be repeated at suitable locations across much of southern England and that would represent a huge expansion of the species’ range and, perhaps most importantly, help safeguard its survival.
When so many of the world’s rare and endangered reptiles are facing a bleak and uncertain future, it makes a pleasant change to find a success story quite literally in our own backyard.