British wildlife isn’t necessarily the first thing to come to mind when we think about reptiles so we thought today would be the perfect day to celebrate the UK’s six native reptile species…
Common Lizard / Zootoca vivipara
If you have seen a lizard while out and about in nature the UK, chances are it’s a common lizard. You are most likely to spot them when they are out in the open basking in the sun (all reptiles rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature) from March through September. They are found in a range of habitats including grassland, woodland, moorland and heathlands.
Common lizards are a usually a shade of brown, with distinctive patterns of darker spots and stripes and between 10-15 cm long (though half of that is just their tail). When under attack, common lizards can shed their tail, which acts a distraction to enable their escape from a predator. Rather than laying eggs, the female common lizard incubates them inside her body before ‘giving birth’. In colder months, they shelter beneath rocks and fallen logs until the spring weather arrives.
Sand Lizard / Lacerta agilis
Contrary to the common lizard, if you see a sand lizard in the UK, you are very fortunate indeed. The destruction of their natural habitat means that sand lizards are now only naturally found in just a few locations in Hampshire, Surrey, Dorset and Merseyside. Sand lizards have very specific requirements – they need sandy ground in mature sunny habitats in which they can dig their burrows to take shelter and for females to lay their eggs.
Male sand lizards have green sides which turn a bright, vibrant green during mating season, while females are a sandy brown. They feed on insects, slugs and spiders, as well as fruit and flower heads. Thanks to successful reintroduction projects at suitable sites, populations of sand lizard are slowly growing in the UK.
Slowworm / Anguis fragilis
Neither a worm nor a snake, slowworms are actually legless lizards. They grow up to around 50cm in length and have very smooth, glossy bodies. Unlike snakes, slowworms have eyelids, a flat forked tongue and (like the common lizard) can drop their tail if needed to try and escape a predator.
Slowworms can be found all across the UK, except Ireland. They prefer to keep under cover, so you are less likely to see one basking out in the open and more likely to find one hiding under logs or at the bottom of a compost pile. They feed on a variety of invertebrates including slugs, snails and other garden creatures. Mating between two slowworms can be a very lengthy affair, sometimes lasting up to 10 hours!
Grass Snake / Natrix helvetica
Grass snakes are our longest native snake, reaching up to 150cm long! Greeny-grey in colour with a distinctive yellow and black collar behind the head and dark markings along their sides and tummies.
Grass snakes are widespread throughout England and Wales. They are strong swimmers and often live near bodies of water such as lakes or reservoirs, or even garden ponds.
Grass snakes eat amphibians, small mammals, fish and birds. They may strike out with the head, but they do not bite and are harmless to humans. Grass snakes will often play dead when threatened by a predator.
Adder / Vipera berus
The adder is the UK’s only venomous snake, though you have much more to fear as a lizard or small mammal than a human, as adder bites are very rarely fatal for people – most bites are the result of human agitation rather than adder aggression.
Smaller than the grass snake, adders grow to up to around 60-80cm long. They are usually easily distinguishable from other snake species as they have a very distinctive ‘zig zag’ marking along their backs, as well as a reddish iris with vertical pupil.
Adders mostly like open habitats heathland, moorland, open woodland and sea cliffs, and rarely stray into the confines of people’s gardens. Although they are quite widespread, their numbers in the UK are declining as a result of habitat loss making adders a conservation concern.
Smooth Snake / Coronella austriaca
Smooth snakes have been called Britain’s rarest reptile as they are now limited only to specific sites in in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. They are a very secretive species which rarely basks in the open, instead preferring to hide under stones, logs and other debris exposed to the sun.
Their scales are smooth and flat (hence the name) and they are usually grey or brown in colour with a paler belly, two rows of dark spots down the back, and a heart or butterfly shaped crown on the head. The smooth snake is a constrictor snake, which means it attacks its prey by coiling tightly round and round, often crushing it to death.
So, next time you are out and about in nature, maybe you will be lucky enough to see one of our native reptile species in the wild, which is the only place reptiles belong.
All reptiles – wherever they originate from in the world - are wild animals and all wild animals have the right to live a wild life in their natural habitat.
Image credits: Hero image is by Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC).