Native reptile species that call Dorset home
- Credit: Archant
Dorset is home to all six native reptile species and at this time of year you can spot them basking on our heathland, as Hester Lacey discovers
Back in May, Andy Fale was lucky enough to come across a pair of adders making the most of a sunny day on Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Upton Heath Reserve. “It was on the edge of a patch of heather and they were just starting to warm up after a cold morning. It was quite a privileged sight,” recalls Andy, who is Trust’s Urban Heaths Officer. The female of the pair will hopefully become a mother over the next few weeks: adders give birth to live young rather than laying eggs, and these perfect miniatures of the adults are born from late August onwards.
Six reptile species are native to the UK and Dorset is home to the full complement: grass snakes, smooth snakes, slow worms, common lizards and the rare sand lizard, as well as the adder, are all found in the county. We are in the season for baby reptiles: like the adder, the slow worm, smooth snake and common lizard give birth to live young, while the eggs of the grass snake and sand lizard also hatch in the late summer and early autumn.
Dorset’s heathlands offer them some ideal habitat. “Reptiles are ectothermic – cold-blooded – so they need sunshine to be active,” explains Andy. “Heathlands tend to have lots of pockets where reptiles can bask in the sun to warm up, with cover close by. A well-managed heath has sandy soil, low vegetation and not too many trees, so it dries out quickly and is a warmer habitat than, say, grasslands.”
Heathlands also provide a reptile banquet: lizards can feast on spiders and insects, while snakes generally prey on small mammals. The grass snake, which likes to be close to water, also takes frogs and newts – and lizards too, while the slow worm – which is a legless lizard rather than a snake – is, according to Andy, partial to a slug or two.
If you are hoping to spot a snake or a lizard, Andy suggests the DWT reserves at Upton Heath, Sopley Common, Tadnoll and Winfrith, and Higher Hyde Heath. “A showery day is the best time: they shelter during the rain, then come out to bask when the sun reappears.”
With this in mind he says that the southern edge of vegetation is a good place to look. “Think like a reptile: you’re in the full sunshine but you’ve got cover to dash into if you sense danger. Along the edge of a sandy path that goes from east to west is a really good place to look. They’re very well camouflaged, but you get your eye in, and once you get to know their shapes you soon start spotting them everywhere. I see the common lizard most frequently, but quite often I see other reptiles too.”
DWT works closely with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARCT), which is also based in Dorset – the ARCT website (arc-trust.org) shows in detail what each species looks like so you can identify which you’ve seen. If you are lucky enough to make a sighting, do let the Dorset Wildlife Trust know. “Our recording schemes help to tell us how a species is doing,” says Andy. “Observe from a distance: basking reptiles are gaining essential warmth and should be left to their own devices, and disturbing rare species such as smooth snakes or sand lizards is illegal. The only venomous British reptile is the adder – a bite, while unpleasant, is very unlikely unless the snake is cornered.”
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If you’re interested in helping protect Dorset’s heathland and regularly use the heaths, perhaps as a dog walker, runner, cyclist or birdwatcher, you might consider joining the DWT HeathWatch programme and keep an eye out for fires and anti-social behaviour. You’ll be given a card with a number to call if you spot anything untoward: all details are on the DWT website.
HeathWatch also protects all the myriad species that rely on this unique habitat – including, of course, our reptiles, which must be some of Dorset’s most interesting species. “They may not be furry or cuddly – but they’re certainly fascinating!” adds Andy.
Find out more about Dorset Wildlife Trust, The Great Heath Project, and places to visit this summer at thegreatheath.org
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