Sunday, 29 May 2011

RSPB Arne Reptiles

TODAY could have been quite disappointing as the cool, overcast weather did nothing to persuade the reptiles, dragonflies and songbirds out at Arne, the beautiful expanse of Dorset heath on the Purbeck Peninsula.  However, the RSPB managed to turn the day into an exciting experience by way of their demonstrations of some of the local wildlife superstars.  The superstars that I am referring to are of course the very rare sand lizard, smooth snakes and other such beasts that inhabit this amazing heathland.

Each hour, on the hour today (Sunday 29th May), wary adults and fascinated hands-on kids are treated to a short show and tell of these animals by one of the local RSPB staff; this was an opportunity too good to miss so I was keen to look, listen and learn...and hold!

Each of the individuals displayed are newly caught from the reserve, held carefully in separate heather filled boxes and then released at the end of the day.  These are not pets or zoo animals.  They were caught and handled under licence and it is obvious that the wardens feel passionate about conserving these species and their habitats.

Sand Lizard and RSPB Warden
Kids love wildlife

The species on display were:
  • slow-worm
  • common lizard
  • sand lizard
  • smooth snake
  • and grass snake
Each one was brought out and its commonness (or otherwise) and biology were described.  The small audience at the beginning quickly grew, and included adults and children - everyone was captivated.  I took lots of pictures and was lucky enough to hold a slow worm and a grass snake, and stroke a smooth snake.  Both the smooth and grass snake are non venomous species that constrict their prey.  Our only snake with venom was an adder - there were no adders at this event.

The smooth snake was indeed very smooth, with none of the bumpy roughness of the grass snake.  The small size of the slow worm belies its robustness, it feels just muscled and strong.  If attacked at the tail end this can be sloughed and will wriggle vigorously to attract the predator.  The slow worms that I have seen often have stumpy tails where tail loss has happened and the new replacement has not quite emulated the old one in length.

Smooth snake - really quite small
Smooth snake

Now that I think back I can't quite believe that I held a grass snake in my hands - I feel quite honoured.  It was very calm with the weight of its body in my left hand and the remaining in my right, with the end of its body curled around my wrist.  Snakes are not slimy, but dry and sinuous, they are quite wonderful beasts.

What I did not realise is that grass-snakes really stink - or at least they can do when distressed.  This one did not smell too much, but a close sniff of its body told me that a full on evacuation was not something that I wanted to experience.  This noxious spraying is one of its defence mechanisms, along with hissing and playing dead.

Grass snake (female)
Grass snake and onlooker

This was a great event, so thanks "Bob" (the Information Assistant at Arne) for such an excellent talk and hands-on experience, and thanks to the RSPB for managing this magnificent reserve, even with such a large human pressure..

Grass snake
Grass snake
Some of the non reptile highlights were the beautiful bright red sundews, towering foxgloves, roaming deer, and the shellduck and waders, particularly the three redshank chicks accompanied by both parents out on the marshy tussocks.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful experience. I am amazed by the colouring of the lizard, looks very exotic, beautiful patterns - the tail and back end look brownish rather than green - is there a reason for this?

  2. Peter said: I understand that the female and male are by default brownish, and only during the breeding season does the male develop the green flanks - therefore the green is the unusual bit, if you see what I mean...


Have your say...