Attracting reptiles into your garden

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Grass snake by Jamie Hall

Suffolk is home to two species of snake (grass snake and adder) and two species of lizard (common lizard and slow-worm). Reptiles appreciate warmth and places to hide from predators, so it is not surprising that they are sometimes found sheltering in gardens.

Unless you have a very large garden with plenty of wildlife areas, it is actually quite unlikely that snakes will be resident. It is more probable that any snakes you see (and the many more you don’t) are visiting in the course of their normal movements through wildlife corridors, especially if you live near areas containing heath and rough grassland, or other preferred habitats such as derelict urban areas, allotments,  ponds, rivers , wetlands, or muck heaps on farms and stables.

Grass, ponds, log piles

With a little planning, your garden can make a big difference by providing extra food and refuge for reptiles and compensating for the loss of habitats in the surrounding countryside – while also providing some of the most rewarding encounters with nature.

Many of the measures that will generally attract wildlife into your garden will also create a haven for reptiles.  Leaving parts of your garden to grow, will create habitat for reptiles’ prey, such as amphibians and slugs and it will also create cover. But snakes and lizards do require some closer cropped areas of grass to give them places to bask.

Before cutting your lawn, walk the area to be cut so that reptiles are dispersed into sheltered areas. Cutting on cold days reduces the chances of killing reptiles.

Leaving out wooden boards, roofing felt or corrugated iron sheets will also help you find out if reptiles use the garden as they will be used for basking or taking refuge underneath.

Habitat or log piles left in sunny areas will also provide shelter and a food source for snakes and other reptiles as do rockeries or banks with plenty of crevices, in south-facing areas close to denser vegetation.

Ensure there is free entry at ground level around the edge of the garden.

Pond creation

Building a pond will also be likely to encourage reptiles to spend longer in your garden in that amphibians are an important source of prey for grass snakes. Leaving a patch of rough grass leading to your pond will enable snakes to approach.

If you need to put netting over your pond, try to use more rigid netting material with a mesh size of at least 4cm (1.5in) – snakes often die after getting caught in flexible, narrow-mesh netting covering ponds or vegetable patches.

Compost heaps

Compost or grass cuttings heaps are a great wildlife feature in any garden while also being good for the environment. They are particularly important for grass snakes, in that they provide a place that is warm and moist to incubate their eggs.  You can help grass snakes to breed by:

• Making the heap as big as possible

• Putting it in a sunny spot, but close to a hedge or ground cover

• Replenishing the heap with compost, kitchen waste, grass cuttings, manure, dead leaves or sawdust

• Ensuring there is easy access for the snakes – do not seal the heap completely

• Avoid turning the heap between mid-June and late September, as eggs may be inside

• Eggs found in compost heaps will always be grass snakes’ – adders do not lay eggs

Cats

Cats are one of the biggest killers of reptiles and their presence in and around your garden will affect the number of lizards and snakes.  Bells on cat collars will have little impact as snakes cannot hear airborne sounds and lizard hearing is not acute.

Active

Reptiles generally emerge from hibernation in March and are active until October, some may be active later or earlier if weather permits. Snakes can travel long distances with grass snakes tracked over 4km. Lizards seem to move much less, often occupying very restricted areas.

Misconceptions

Snakes are an important part of the food web and they will enter gardens to find prey. Snakes take very low numbers of animals and will not endanger prey populations in doing so. Declines in the number of garden frogs could be due to natural fluctuations, fish, disease or habitat changes.

Although grass snakes usually enter gardens to catch amphibians, grass snakes occasionally eat goldfish.  It is worth repeating that snakes only take a very small number of prey, so any sudden, substantial loss of fish is more likely to be caused by herons or cats.

The adder is the only venomous snake in Suffolk and Britain, a fact that has earned it a dubious public image. But bites from adders are very rare and the majority of them have been because the snake has been picked up.

Most reactions to adder bites are mild, but any bite should be regarded as potentially serious and immediate medical advice should be sought.  Occasionally people do report being bitten in the garden but have not seen a snake.

Many of these cases are more likely to be spider bites or pricking by thorns. Bites to pets do occur, but again are rarely in the garden and hardly ever prove fatal.

Vets and doctors in areas where adders are more prevalent are experienced in handling bite cases and understand effective treatment.

Identifying reptiles

Many of the calls the trust receive are from people who have found a reptile in their garden and want to know what it is. Although we are more than happy to talk to you over the phone or via our Facebook page, the following descriptions can help you to identify reptile species found in Suffolk.

Species Description Occurrence in gardens
Common lizard Up to14cm in length. Light and dark spots, flecks and stripes on brown/grey background. Very variable. Young may be all brown or black. Often basks on rocks, wood piles Rare
Slow-worm Up to 40cm in length. Brown, copper, golden or grey; may have black/dark brown sides and a thin stripe on the back. Small head, often with a dark spot. The body is very shiny and the tail is often blunt. Normally discovered underneath objects Frequent if slow-worms present in general area and garden has long grass and refuges such as wood piles. Also found in urban gardens
Grass snake Up to 75cm. Background: olive green, brown or grey. Neck: yellow or white mark, next to black mark. Black bars down sides, some black spots on top. Markings are occasionally faint. Normally seen in or near ponds or basking in a sunny spot. Very fast moving Frequent, especially close to ponds, farms or stables with muck heaps. Can travel long distances. Compost heaps may also attract
Adder Up to 55cm. Background: grey or brown; may be reddish. Dark brown, reddish or black zig-zag from head to tail. Spots on sides. Entirely black adders sometimes occur. Normally seen basking in sunny spots Rare, except when near to favoured habitats – more likely in Dorset, Cornwall, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex

 

If you are lucky enough to see a reptile in your garden, make sure you record it. By logging your sighting to iSpy a Reptile it will make it easier for information to be collated and  made available to support research and decision-making at local and national levels.