Slow worm

Slow worm by Brett LewisSlow worm by Brett Lewis

Anguis fragilis

Strangely, the slow worm is not a worm and neither is it slow. It is a type of legless lizard, one of Suffolk's four reptile species. It has a firm, cylindrical and smooth body with a fine stripe down the back, with adults typically 30 - 50cm long. The undersides are usually black and unlike snakes, slow worms have distinctive and movable eyelids.

You stand a reasonable chance of seeing one if you know where to look. Favourite haunts include heathlands, disused allotments, woodland rides, railway embankments, churchyards and even gardens. As they rely on the outdoor temperature to control body heat, they are dependent on weather conditions. Sunny days with patchy cloud or a sunny spell after rain are often the best times to spot slow worms, as they come out to bask on a log or south-facing slope. It is also worth looking underneath debris such as wooden or metal sheets.

They emerge from underground winter hibernation in March once the weather warms up. Mating now takes place and the young are born from July to October, usually in late August or early September. Young slow worms have just a few weeks of activity before the temperature drops and it becomes time to seek shelter underground.

Sometimes called the 'gardeners friend', they are partial to slugs but will also consume a range of garden pests including snails, caterpillars and ants. Slow worm are in turn eaten by predators such as stoats, weasels and birds of prey. In urban areas, cats unfortunately can kill significant numbers.

Sadly the slow worm, along with all other species of reptile, has declined drastically, largely as a result of habitat loss in the countryside. Urban areas now provide them with important refuges, with derelict plots in towns likely to be colonised with open, rough grassland and scrub - valuable reptile habitat. Dumped materials such as garden refuse, concrete or metal act as perfect basking sites.

With changes in planning policy, focusing on the need for brownfield development, many of these sites may now be under threat. While Suffolk Wildlife Trust supports development at sites where there is no wildlife interest, it is important that we do not allow urban or rural sites which support important reptile populations to be destroyed.

As a first step to protecting these valuable areas, the Trust has carried out surveys at sites in Haverhill, Sudbury, Leiston and Saxmundham in order to provide local authorities with ecological information before areas have been allocated for development.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Snape Marshes is a good place to spot slow worm, grass snake and common lizard.