The truth about London's reptiles

common lizard credit Lee Cohen

Keeping it Wild Trainee Lee tackles the negative stigma and reveals more about London's reptiles.

What comes to mind when you hear someone talking about reptiles? Slimy, dangerous and creepy are all terms that tend to come up. These are for the most part wrong. These animals, particularly snakes are highly and unfairly stigmatised. Another common misconception is where they can be found. Forget the exotics of India or the deserts of America and Australia, we are lucky enough to have a few highly adapted species in London and its immediate surroundings.

Here in the UK we have six native species of reptile, we have three lizards and three snakes. Our native snakes are the grass snake (Natrix helvetica), the adder (Vipera berus), and the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) while our lizards are the slow-worm (Anguis fragilis), the common or viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivpara) and the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis). Four of these species are found in various sites and habitats in London where they provide excellent benefits to the ecosystem as well as to us. Not just because they provide a “guess what I saw today” story for people to tell.

The two snakes found in London are the grass snake and the adder, they are both very different behaviourally and aesthetically. The grass snake is widespread and is our longest, it can be found in a variety of habitats, from dry grasslands to parks. They do favour water and are a wetland specialist. They can even be found in gardens, particularly if a pond is present as they can search for their favoured prey – amphibians. They are completely harmless to humans as they have no venom and their relative size means the very rare bites can’t do any real damage. These snakes have amazing defence strategies such as playing dead, false attacking and releasing a garlic like odour from their vents. They are a very flighty and quick snake, dashing off at the first sign of danger.

Adder

adder credit Lee Cohen

The adder or viper is very adapted species, being found even in the Arctic circle. In London they enjoy woodland edges, grasslands and particularly heathland habitats or brownfield sites where they look for their favoured rodent prey. These snakes are shorter and stockier than the grass snake with a zig-zag pattern on their backs. They are venomous, but the poison is usually of little danger to humans. These snakes do have potential to be dangerous but despite the commonly false newspaper headlines, they are very rarely aggressive and are highly secretive, choosing to avoid confronting humans or domestic animals whenever possible.

These snakes hibernate communally in the same hibernaculum (underground chamber) as the previous years. Males emerge in February/March to slough their skin and wrestle for mating rights with females who appear 30 days later.

slow worm

slow worm credit Lee Cohen

The slow-worm is actually a legless lizard, this is evident as it has eyelids – but snakes do not. These lizards have been called a gardener’s friend as they feed on slugs and snails. As a burrowing species they are rarely above ground during the day. The slow-worm is one of the longest-lived lizards, being able to reach up to 30 years in the wild, and up to 54 in captivity. The highest cause of mortality in London is cats as they have no defence against them.

The third lizard we have in London is the common lizard, the most common reptile in Britain. It lives in diverse habitats including woodlands, grasslands, heathlands, railways lines and gardens. This is a small lizard with a total length of about 10cm, it favours small invertebrate prey such as ants and spiders. Like the slow-worm and adder, this species does not lay eggs and instead incubates them internally and gives birth to live young. These young are born in July and are much darker than the adult.

common lizard

common lizard credit Lee Cohen

The only defence both our lizards have is to drop their tail if they get captured: a process called autotomy. The tail stays wriggling for a while to distract the predator long enough for them get away. A new tail does grow back but it is shorter than the original.

Looking for reptiles always reminds me opening a pack of collectible premier league stickers as child: never knowing what you are going to get and carefully lifting logs and branches is a similar addictive process. Just always remember to stay safe yourself and importantly to respect the wildlife around you. And remember, next time you see a headline about “an invasion of fatal vipers!” this is completely over exaggerated. We are right worry, but for them, their numbers could almost vanish within two decades. That would be a real shame. So now you've found out more about them, spread the word to your friends and family to increase awareness and protection of these awesome creatures. 

Wild Action Day at Woodberry Wetlands

Wild Action Day at Woodberry Wetlands credit Penny Dixie

About Keeping it Wild

Keeping it Wild is a new project, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, that will empower and inspire 600 young people aged 11-25, from backgrounds currently under-represented in natural heritage, to gain vital skills while discovering, conserving and sharing their experiences of the capital’s wild spaces. 16-25-year-olds are invited to apply for a 12 week Traineeship, paid via a bursary. They based at one of our reserves, where they spend time learning from the London Wildlife Trust team, gaining valuable practical skills in urban nature conservation. Additional support for the Traineeships has been generously donated by the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers.

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