Back in 2014, a YouGov survey showed that around 52% of people in the UK said they were scared of snakes to some degree – just edged out by heights and public speaking. A fear of snakes, also known as Ophidiophobia, is one of the most common reported phobias and affects nearly a third of adults around the world. British snakes however are more often than not totally harmless, and are usually more afraid of humans than we are of them. We’re a lot bigger, after all!
In the UK, we’ve got four kinds of native snakes (and one native lizard who is often mistaken for one!). All of our British snakes (and other reptiles) are protected as part of the Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981, which means that it’s an offence to injure, kill or sell any of our native species. It’s also an offence to keep, handle or trap the smooth snake or the sand lizard as they are particularly rare. This means that if you see a snake in your garden, allotment, or while on a walk that not only is it cruel to injure them it’s also illegal!
While some people love snakes (and even keep them as pets), not everyone would be thrilled to see a scaly serpent slithering across their lawn. We’ve put together a list of British snakes and what to do if you see one in your garden, allotment or when out for a walk.
The adder, also called the Viper, is one of the most well-known snakes in the UK. This is probably thanks to the fact that it’s also the UK’s only venomous snake, which gives it a rather fearsome reputation. However, adders rarely attack and tend to only bite in defense. In the past one hundred years, there have only been 14 deaths from adder bites, the most recent being in 1975. Those most at risk from bites are babies and children, the elderly or household pets, and unless you have an allergy to adder venom the only symptoms you can expect are dizziness, nausea and swelling. In most cases, an adder bite won’t even require treatment with antivenom!Adders have a strong, dark “zig-zag” pattern and a “v” shape on the top of their heads. They tend to eat small rodents as well as frogs and toads.
While adders might not live up to their reputation, it’s important to remember that in the very unlikely chance you are bitten by an adder, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Grass snakes are often mistaken for adders thanks to their dark green markings. Unlike adders, grass snakes are non-venomous and have yellow collars around their necks and lack the tell-tale “zig-zag” markings which are found on adders. Grass snakes are found all over England and Wales but not in Scotland, usually living near ponds or other bodies of water and eat mostly amphibians like frogs or toads as well as some species of small fish.
Like all native snakes, grass snakes tend to avoid people and are more likely to attempt to escape than attack if provoked. Often, grass snakes will “play dead” when startled, flipping onto their backs and lying with their mouths open to appear non-threatening (and less like a tasty snack!). If that doesn’t work, grass snakes can start to give off a disgusting smell to really put off a potential predator. If none of this works, grass snakes will (very rarely) rear up and perform a mock attack.
Last year the barred grass snake was officially classified as a distinct species separate from the common grass snake, becoming the fourth native snake in the UK!
The smooth snake is the UK’s rarest snake and so is heavily protected by law. They are only found in the heathlands in Dorset, some areas of Hampshire and Surrey. These incredibly shy snakes tend to spend a lot of time hidden underground or beneath logs and rocks and are non-venomous, completely harmless to humans. These small snakes rarely reach more than 70cm long with a slender body and flat, grey or brown scales. Smooth snakes have dark butterfly or heart shaped mark on the top of their heads.
Slow worms are not, in fact, snakes. These legless lizards are very common throughout Britain and prefer moist mossy or grassy areas, so are often found beneath sheds or compost bins. They reach only 40cm long and are a light brown colour with shiny scales.
Slow worms are probably the most commonly spotted reptile in the UK and at first glance are often mistaken for snakes. Unlike snakes, slow worms have openings for their ears and have the ability to blink, which snakes do not.
What to do if you find a snake in your garden
In general, snakes try to keep away from built up areas and places where there are a lot of people, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find one in your garden. You’re more likely to spot a snake while out in the countryside, hiding in tall grass or leaf litter.
A snake in your garden is probably just passing through, so leaving them alone is usually the best option. Keep calm and don’t make a lot of noise or try to startle the snake. Have a good look and attempt to identify the snake, but avoid picking it up or trying to catch it. A snake will eventually leave your garden on its own, so there’s no need to panic.
It’s a good idea to keep children and pets indoors, even if you know the snake is non-venomous, just in case they or the snake is injured. Most snakes will move away if approached and are generally more afraid of you than you are of them. If you see a native British snake in your garden, you don’t need to call the RSPCA or any other animal protection group unless the snake appears to be injured or wounded. If there’s a wounded snake in your garden, you can call the RSPCA on 0870 55 55 999.
You are far more likely to find a snake in the countryside (or in an allotment where there’s more open space). Again, snakes will usually move away in the presence of humans and can detect footsteps through the vibrations in the ground. If you find a snake in the countryside, leave it alone and let it go on its way – it’s probably just looking for food or a place to hide.
If you’re walking in an area known to be home to snakes, keep an eye on the ground. Be careful when moving through overgrown areas as snakes are more likely to strike when trodden on.
There are a number of charities currently active in the UK who would love to hear from you about any snakes you’ve spotted. Report sightings to The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, or use Froglife’s Dragon Finder app.
What if I’ve found a snake that doesn’t match the above descriptions?
Around the world, pet snakes are becoming more and more common. If you’ve seen a snake which doesn’t look like one of the ones listed above, it’s probably an escaped pet. Generally, pet snakes are completely harmless, but if you’re not sure then it’s always a good idea to keep children and animals indoors. In the UK, you need a licence to keep venomous snakes, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever come across one that has escaped.
Popular pet snakes include corn snakes, ball pythons, hognoses and dwarf pythons. Corn snakes are particularly prolific escapees, and there’s been lots of reports of these snakes turning up in all manner of unexpected places. If you ever find an exotic snake in your garden or see one outside, ring the RSPCA’s 24-hour helpline on 0300 1234 999, so you can try to reunite the snake with its owner.
Lotti worked with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.