Friday, 13 April 2007

Grass Snakes, spring, and fresh air

Last weekend was Easter, and for once the long weekend was notable for some glorious weather. At least where I live it was. And so it was an ideal time to get out into the garden. Our principal objective was to 'sort out' an acre of woodland. A huge old oak had crashed to the ground in a recent gale, taking with it a completely rotten even older tree. And the rest of the 'wood' was suffering from a surfeit of straggling elder and blackthorn. The end result was that it was almost impossible to walk around, the ground was pretty well devoid of any plant life, and there was a lot of dead wood.

Now this is a dilemma, because any good naturalist likes lots of fallen trees, and lots of dead wood. So the answer was to get in with my chain saw, and create numerous log piles -- that way all the wood remained, but in a slightly 'tidier' manner, enabling access and light to get in. In the process, we made a couple of bonfires, to dispose of a small proportion of the extraordinary amount of twiggery that remained when clearing the elder. And that proved to be a disaster.

The morning after, I found a medium-sized (2foot) grass snake, dead in the ashes of the fire. At first the reaction is to think it must have been in the twigs -- just as hedgehogs get roasted when a heap of garden rubbish is burned -- but that simply was not possible.

No the explanation is that reptiles regulate their body temperature when their innards get hot. So they bask away in the sun until the centre of the body is warm enough for action, and then, off they go. The warm ashes of the fire probably attracted the snake, but by the time its innards were nicely warm, its skin and outer parts were, unfortunately, cooked. It's a point worth remembering if you have a bonfire in summer, with reptiles around -- rake out the fire, so that they are not attracted in the cooler hours. I wish I had known of the risk, as it is really sad to see wildlife end in this way, particularly when grass snakes are probably in a steep decline in most parts of England, if the numbers dead on roads are anything to go on.

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