As a country we’re not blessed with a wide variety of reptiles. The fact we are an island and quite often a chilly one at that are the two main factors in the case of these cold-blooded creatures.

However, we do have both lizards and snakes, some of which we know make their home on land belonging to the Countryside Regeneration Trust (CRT). Shy and often vulnerable, these species have a natural tendency to keep themselves hidden away from predators and human beings, meaning for some of us their existence may never have been affirmed with an actual sighting.

Whether you have seen them or not, we can assure you there are six species of reptiles out there in the British countryside. Three are snakes: the smooth snake, grass snake, and adder, and three are lizards: the slow worm, common lizard, and sand lizard.

Here are 10 things you might not know about them…

1. Grass snakes have a cream and black pattern on their bellies that resembles a shopping bar code. Just like a human fingerprint, these patterns are unique, making it possible to positively identify individuals.

2. Of all the six UK's native reptile species, Slow worm (below) are the longest lived. They can survive for up to 30 years.

3. All reptiles shed their skin; a process also known as sloughing. A few days before shedding, adder (below), smooth snake, and grass snake eyes turn a bluey/opaque colour. 

4. Some adders in certain populations are black - also known as melanistic. Across Europe, the adder’s range extends beyond the Arctic Circle, and it is hypothesised that melanism is advantageous in more northerly locations. Being black allows snakes to better absorb heat from the sun, and therefore warm up and become active faster.

5. Sand Lizards (below) mostly eat insects and other invertebrates but will occasionally turn cannibal by feeding on juvenile common and sand lizards.

6. Female adders are not monogamous by nature. This means they will often mate with 2 or more different males, resulting in a litter of baby adders with different fathers.

7.  Slow worm, common lizard (below) and sand lizard can deliberately lose their tails to escape a predator. Known as autotomy, occasionally loss of tails in common and sand lizards is partial, tricking the cells around the wound into growing a new tail whilst the old tail heals. That’s why sometimes lizards can have two tails.

8. Slow worm (below) are legless lizards that superficially resemble snakes. However, there are two major differences between lizards and snakes. Lizards have eyelids like humans, snakes don’t. Some lizards, including our three native species, can regenerate lost tails, but snakes cannot. 

9.  There are three types of giving birth to young in reptiles and between them, our 6 native reptiles exhibit all three. Grass snake (below) and sand lizard lay eggs (Oviparous) which incubate externally without parental participation. Smooth snake, adder and slow worm eggs fully develop within the mother’s body nourished by the egg yolk (Ovoviviparous). Common Lizard babies develop inside the mother’s body, nourished by a placenta much like mammals (Viviparous).

10. Being confined to heathlands in Southern parts of England, smooth snake (below) are the UK’s rarest native reptile. They are a constrictor, which means they kill by coiling around prey and asphyxiating it. They have a preferred diet of other reptiles, including baby adders.

All images taken by Nick Dobbs.
Published: 23 February 2024

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