I have the honour of being the parliamentary champion of the Britain’s rarest reptile: the Smooth Snake. I am also fortunate to receive briefings from the dedicated experts Tony Gent and Owain Masters.
The range of the smooth snake (coronella austriaca) is limited to our lowland heaths like much of the New Forest. Britain accounts for 20% of the World’s total lowland heath.
The smooth Snake is what is known as an ‘umbrella species’ because it serves as a flagship for promoting conservation of its own habitats and also that of many other species. Smooth snakes are recognised as a conservation priority in Britain, are fully protected by law and identified as key feature in many sites with conservation designations.
Smooth snakes will have been active since late March, when the warming weather would have brought them out of hibernation. Having mated from in April and May, the females will be basking in the sun with the next generation being born from mid-August to early October.
Though there is the danger that welcome warm dry weather, brings with it an increased risk of heath fires, which can be devastating to local smooth snake and reptile populations. So don’t barbeque in the Forest.
Current proposals for Species Abundance Targets under the provisions of the Environment Act 2021 do not include any reptile species so I will have to keep badgering Rebecca Pow, the responsible minister, using the data provided by Tony and Martin as ammunition, in order to see that this deficiency is addressed. The key point being that reptiles are a ‘weathervane’ for so much else in terms of biodiversity and healthy habitats.
The Snakes in the Heather project, run by Amphibian & Reptile Conservation and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, started in 2019, has the smooth snake as its flagship species. The project is a volunteer-based wildlife survey to raise awareness of reptiles within local communities with both public events and school-based activities across the range of the smooth snake in southern England. The project is giving many more people an understanding and appreciation of smooth snakes and all of our native reptile species, leading to improvements in habitat condition.
Over 200 people are now trained to survey for smooth snakes using the latest technology developed for the project. – Preliminary habitat suitability models have been completed for smooth snake, adder and sand lizards allowing us to ensure the survey programme targets potential gaps together with historic locations and known populations.
Over 2000 children have received lessons about the UK’s reptile species. There has been coverage on the Countryfile TV programme. A Snakes in the Heather children’s story book In Search of Old Uncle Blue has been published. We are looking at developing a campaign around raising the profile of smooth snake over the coming year, to involve a number, conservation organisations and schools – and hopefully local businesses.
Wildlife Conservation and habitat restoration needs to be high on our political agenda if our planet, as we have known it, is to survive.