How to spot snakes and lizards in the Cheshire countryside
Snakes and lizards are not only found in baking hot climates far from the tranquil hills of this county, says Tom Marshall of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, and late winter is usually the best time to see them
There’s something a little unnerving about seeing a snake in Britain for the first time. All the classic features are there – the diamond shaped markings, the forked tongue dancing in front of a pair of bloodredeyes and that slightly increased heart rate that suggests you’re not quite sure what its next move will be.
In March however, our native snakes are pretty chilled-out, in every way.When only the hardiest birds are full of the joys of spring and butterflies and dragonflies still seem a long way off, March sees the rising of serpents from a wintry slumber. This presents a perfect opportunity to get some of the best views of our native reptiles, from adders and slow worms to lizards – yes, we’ve got lizards here too.
For the past few months these scaly residents have been sheltering in their rather grandly-named ‘hibernacula’ – piles of rocks, rubble, compost heaps or anywhere with a steady ambient temperature.
As the days grow longer though, they rise with the gradually warming sunand venture out. Adders – our only venomous snake – are the first to emerge, with the males often heading out in March and sometimes even in late February, spending the weeks until April shedding their dull winter skin in favour of a rich black and green attire. The female adders follow soon after, stunningly well concealed when curled-up against the rusty-redbrackens of winter.
The best place to look for adders are exposed areas with a south facing aspect and vegetation that provides a good balance of protective cover to slip into, but opportunities to spread out and maximise exposure to the vital blood-warming spring sunshine. In the heart of Cheshire, the uplands of the Sandstone Trail with its heather and sandy footpaths are the perfect combination for adders and as good a place as any in the county to see your first snake.
Hot on the scaly tail of the adders are the supporting cast of other British reptiles from the common lizard (often on the adder’s dinner menu), slow worms and grass snakes – all of which can also be seen in the region.The ‘common’ or viviparous lizard is found further north than any other, and can be found patiently lying inches away from your walking boots more often than people realise.
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The sun-drenched wooden boardwalks at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Danes Moss nature reserve near Macclesfield, or the sandy footpaths at the Trust’s Cleaver Heath on the Wirral are irresistible lizard locations. A tell-tail – literally – may be all you see, but in this case the early bird usually catches the lizard, as the heat of the sun soon finds them with sufficient energy to dart out of sight before we realise they’re even there.
These pocket-sized reptiles (often just a few centimetres long) are also unique in their namesake ‘viviparous’ – meaning they give birth to live young, unlike their egg-laying counterparts.
Where to see reptiles in Cheshire
Sandstone Trail uplands (Bickerton Hill and Peckforton)Cleaver Heath, Wirral (CWT)Danes Moss, Macclesfield (CWT)Delamere ForestGoyt ValleyHatch Mere (CWT)Risley Moss, Warrington
Information on Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves can be found at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.Adders are most often seen at Risley Moss, while common lizards and other reptiles can be seen at any of the above sites. All reptiles are protected and should not be handled under any circumstances. Adders are reclusive by nature and will only become aggressive if provoked
Amphibians in Cheshire
If an excursion in search of diminutive dinosaurs still seems too much effort in the chillier days of March, then there’s probably plenty of action to enjoy in your garden too – if you have a pond, that is.
Late winter sees the return of frogs and toads to the region’s ponds and soon after you may find yourself fostering several hundred tadpoles in the back garden.
Cheshire is no stranger to amphibian residents, with its often referred to title of ‘pond capital’ of Europe. However, from the grandest stately home lake to a leaky lily-filled barrel in the backyard, there’s usually only one thing on the minds of frogs and toads at this time of year.
Contrary to what you might think, amphibians actually spend the majority of their time on ‘dry’ land – albeit under a nice damp log or perhaps even under the garden shed. Water becomes a vital link in the lifecycle in March though, as a more permanent wet setting is required for the jelly-like spawn that many of us investigated as youngsters and held aneye to in an old jam jar.
The annual pilgrimage to these amorous festivities is not without danger though,and toads in particular are at huge risk during damp nights in March as they cross the landscape – undeterred by tarmac barriers – to the best places to raise their offspring.
Such is the risk to toads from major roads that have dissected ancestral breeding grounds that local community groups have even set up toad collection evenings where locals gather together with torches and buckets and collect hundreds of toads unaware of the Highway Code, transferring them safely to their destination.
As winter slowly fades and the true warmth of spring is made certain by the first bluebells, the excitement is over for another year, and our reptiles and amphibians return to a life among the undergrowth, nothing more than a rustling ‘what was that?’ on a spring walk.
A deadly move
If things look a little overcrowded in your pond – don’t worry. Safety in numbers isnatural for amphibians and hundreds of tadpoles or toadlets is simply an insurancepolicy. In fact, moving frog or toadspawn could inadvertently spread a number of diseases that can affect amphibians, so if you’re lucky enough to have this natural phenomenon in your back garden, just enjoy it.