As we move into summer (at least according to my calendar and not the weather), it is the perfect time to look out for some remarkable reptiles. The UK has six native reptile species, three snakes and three lizards. But one of these species appears not to fit into either category... the slow worm. So how do you tell the difference between a slow worm and a snake? And if they’re not a snake, what are they?
A few years ago I was running along a small country lane lined with thick hedgerows and ditches full of nettles and vibrant green plants. It was one of those lovely balmy summer evenings where the air was warm and there were swifts gliding effortlessly across the sky. Something at the side of the road caught my eye, was it a twig? A piece of cord or rope? A worm?
I slowed down (not that I was running particularly fast!) and as I got closer, I realised that the snake-like thing I was looking at was actually a slow worm. It was about 30 cm long, a beautiful rich brown-golden colour and very smooth, almost silky-looking skin. Its face really stood out for me, beautiful dark eyes and a stubby little snout.
Slow worm (Anguis fragilis), photographed in Dorset – Ann Collier
I had seen pictures of these smooth-skinned, legless lizards and clips of them on wildlife documentaries, but I had never seen one in the flesh. It remained calmly on the side of the road as I crouched down to marvel at it - I had always wanted to see a slow worm and never expected to come across one on my evening run of all things!
How did I know it was a slow worm and not a snake? Well, the main thing I noticed was that it didn’t have an obvious neck – the head just flowed straight on into the body. Have a look at a picture of a grass snake, adder or smooth snake and you’ll see that their heads are much more distinct than a slow worm.
There are other ways you can set snakes and slow worms apart. Does it blink? If it blinks, it is a slow worm as they have eyelids. Does it have a forked tongue? If the tongue is more notched than forked then it’s a slow worm.
Slow worms can vary in colouration with the males being a grey-brown and the females browner with dark sides.
Slow worm on a verge – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Getting over the initial excitement of seeing the slow worm, my next thought was what on earth was it doing on the side of the road? Well, having done a little reading I now know that slow worms like areas filled with lots of plants so this verdant road verge was pretty ideal. They can also be found in woodland glades, pastures, heaths and scrubland. They are found across mainland Britain but you’re most likely to come across them in Wales and the south-west of England. These special lizards are most active at dusk as they search for food, so I suspect I came across ‘my’ slow worm as it set out in search of its dinner. They eat a variety of small critters such as slugs, snails and worms.
Some people are extremely fortunate to have these incredible legless lizards in their gardens – just take a look at these wonderful photos of a slow worm in a reader’s garden in Dorset. What a treat it must be to see them in your garden! In gardens, they will make the most of a warm compost heap, logpile or stacks of flat stones. Slow worms, like other lizards and snakes are cold-blooded so they actively seek out places to keep warm, which is why compost heaps can be a good hiding place.
If you find a slow worm then wow – lucky you! And don’t panic, they do not bite people and are completely harmless. These beautiful animals are protected by law and it is a criminal offence to deliberately kill them. If you do find a slow worm in your garden or out in the countryside then the best thing to do is to leave it alone or cover it back over carefully.
After a couple of minutes of admiring the first, and to this date, last slow worm I’ve seen, I decided it was time to leave it in peace. As we parted company I left with a feeling of complete wonder at the natural world and with that immense buzz you get from seeing remarkable creatures in everyday situations. I’d like to think the slow worm slithered off and had a very tasty meal in all that lovely lush vegetation. I look out for it every time I run past that spot but to no avail… maybe one day we will be reunited.
So, the next time you’re out on a sunny walk, keep an eye on the ground for a basking reptile, can you identify it? Here are some of the key differences between a slow worm and a snake, to look out for.
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