Reptiles can sometimes be perceived as unwelcome members of the wildlife community, especially snakes. In fact, they are both beautiful and fascinating creatures that have been declining in numbers. As they are hardly ever seen they are often not considered when an area is managed.
Two species of snake, the adder and the grass snake, and two species of lizard, the common lizard and slow worm, are found in Devon and there are only three species of each in the whole country. Slow worms, which are relatively common in Devon, are often confused with snakes, but they are in fact legless lizards – they can blink, unlike snakes. Of all our reptiles, you are most likely to see slow worms and grass snakes as they are both quite common in gardens. Both species are harmless. So is the common lizard, a widespread species which can be found across a range of habitats including grasslands, hedge banks, open woods and, again, gardens. Adders, the only poisonous reptile in Britain, don’t usually frequent gardens but prefer drier habitats like heathland.
Reptiles are fairly secretive and will usually only be seen if you go looking for them.
There are several ways to manage habitats for reptiles:
- Create a log pile or a rockery in a sunny spot. Reptiles need somewhere warm and sheltered to rest and also an area to bask in the sun.
- A slab of slate or a piece of corrugated iron can provide shelter and a basking area. Reptiles can often be found on sunny days under a warm piece of corrugated iron.
- A pond can be an excellent area for grass snakes; they hunt amphibians in ponds and are very good swimmers. A pond is also an excellent area for many other species, too (see Ponds and wetlands).
- Keep a compost heap – any kind of compost but especially grass cuttings provide excellent refuge for reptiles. Grass snakes in particular like to lay their eggs in a warm damp place and rotting vegetation offers ideal conditions.
- Leave an area of long grass and shrubs. This will benefit wildlife in general, including reptiles. Slow worms, in particular, like to hunt in long grass feeding on insects and slugs.
Other habitats that are good for reptiles include:
- Derelict urban areas. There are often areas of exposed tarmac or concrete which are ideal for basking. Piles of rubble are great for reptiles to hide in.
- Heathlands are a good habitat for many reptiles, especially if they also include areas of water. Devon is particularly good for heathlands and their positive management is very important.
- Wetland areas including ponds, marshes and rivers are ideal for grass snakes.
- Allotments – particularly untidy ones!
- Areas of road or rail embankment with scrub close at hand and that get plenty of sun. Reptiles have to bask in the sun but never like to be far from cover if they need to hide from potential predators.
- Woodland edges with sunny areas near to cover and an abundance of insects are also good for reptiles.
- Abandoned quarries also provide basking and refuge areas.