Sussex Wildlife Trust: Grass Snake

August 1st, 2022
Grass Snakes have been rather short-changed when it comes to their name; they’re much better at swimming than they are at sitting in the grass
‘Go wild in the country, where snakes in the grass are absolutely free.’ I can still remember Annabella Lwin, of new-wave pop group Bow Wow Wow, singing those words on Top of the Pops back in 1982: a clarion call for early eighties urbanites to get out into the wild.

Annabella was ecologically correct. There are indeed free snakes out there, a fact that still thrills me each time I encounter one slithering through Sussex.

As a child I thought snakes were exotic creatures, which hung off African jungle branches in Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies to convey a vague sense of something sinister. But there’s nothing sinister about the Grass Snake; the commonest of Britain’s three native snake species.

Mesmerising eyes, gorgeous sleek scales of olive-green and a series of stripes along their flanks. For a cold-blooded reptile they sure look hot. A key identification feature is that yellow collar encircling the back of their head.

Grass Snakes have been rather short-changed when it comes to their name; they’re much better at swimming than they are at sitting in the grass (a bit like Johnny Weissmuller, who performed better in the water than he did on dry land). You’ll find Grass Snakes gliding through wet ditches and dykes or even in your garden pond as they hunt for their favourite food: frogs and toads.

These amphibious feasts really pile on the pounds, so when their snakeskin suits become too tight they slip out of them to reveal a larger, shiny set of scales underneath. They undertake several costume changes each year and can grow to an impressive size – two or three feet is typical but there are rumours of six-foot long monsters out there.

Of course they’re nothing be scared of. If threatened they either pretend to be dead, hiss a lot or, according to my reptile book, ‘release a pungent, foul-smelling substance from their anal gland.’

In July the female Grass Snakes excavate 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 cooks them to perfection. Set your egg timer for ten weeks and you’ll return to find pencil-sized baby snakes emerging into the world.

I guess not everyone followed Bow Wow Wow’s advice back in 1982 because when leading my wildlife walks I’m always amazed at how many adults have never seen a snake in Britain. But it’s never too late to go wild in the country.

By Michael Blencowe:
Learning & Engagement Officer, Sussex Wildlife Trust
Sussex Wildlife Trust is an independent registered charity caring for wildlife and habitats throughout Sussex. Join Michael Blencowe on our regular wildlife walks and also enjoy free events, discounts on wildlife courses, Wildlife magazine and our guide book: Discovering Wildlife in Sussex.

It’s easy to join online at:
www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join
or T: 01273 497532
Grass Snake Dave Kilbey Sussex Wildlife Trust
Grass Snake Drerek Middleton Sussex Wildlife Trust
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