Grass snake image copyright Kevin Simmonds,

Snakes are up there with spiders and sharks in the ‘horror movie’ wildlife list. An unexpected encounter with a snake is guaranteed to make your heart beat raise a notch or two. Our primeval instincts kick in and for many of us our first thought is ‘danger!’

Snakes well and truly get bad press; if they’re not portrayed as scary then they are believed to be somehow sinister or conniving. But last weekend I had an experience that led me to rethink my views on snakes.

At the bottom of my little garden is a pile of rotting logs and some long grass that I pretend doesn’t exist. I was hunting for ladybirds (under the strict instruction of my bossy two year old) when something caught my eye. Curled up on a log, basking in the sun was a snake, perfectly still. It was dark green, with a yellow collar on its neck – a grass snake. It was so oblivious to me peering at it that any initial sense of worry just melted away and I reminded myself that there really is no need for hasty exits with our native grass snakes.

Grass snakes may be the UK’s largest reptile, the largest even growing to the length of an adult human, but they are non-venomous and very shy. In fact, the worst thing they are likely to do is smell horrible. When under threat, they produce a foul, garlicky fluid from their anal glands to put off a potential predator. Their other trick to avoid trouble is to play dead, literally going limp and floppy with their mouth gaping open until they feel safe again.

You’re most likely to spot a grass snake in areas close to water with a good supply of their favourite food, frogs and toads. The grass snake is actually a brilliant swimmer and will take to the water to find prey. Even if you’re not lucky enough to see one, you may well find their skin near to a pond edge. They moult at least once a year, sloughing off the old skin in one whole piece.

As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes need the heat of the sun to warm up them up. This means you are only likely to see them between April and October because, sensibly, they hibernate during the colder months when our British winter means there simply isn’t enough sunshine to get them out of bed. They’ll be underground, having found a cosy hole to hide away in, safe from ground frosts.

In 2007, the grass snake was included in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a species requiring greater protection and they are also protected by law. You can help grass snakes as well as lots of other species by leaving a corner of your garden untouched and putting in a pond. I can’t wait for my next snake encounter.

  • I'm jealous. I haven't even "bumped into" a grass snake at Minsmere this year. Not many places for one to hide in my garden, though a huge frog has taken a liking ot our tomato plants' growbag (peat-free of course). Two year-olds can be very observant - mine's great at spotting birds flying over, and was busy chasing a migrant hawker dragonfly around the garden yesterday. He loves spiders too, so hopefully we'll have no wildlfie phobias when he's older.

  • Ah, the lovely legless lizard. Slow worms are beautiful (and like snakes, they are also protected by law  under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981).

  • Lucky you!  I was upset when a neighbour told me he had killed a 'snake' in his garden - from his description it was a harmless slow worm - lovely little creatures with their coppery scales.