The secretive smooth snake is to get a helping hand with a project to monitor, record and protect the UK’s rarest reptile and its home, it has been announced.
The smooth snake is one of only three native snake species. So little is known about them that no records exist of their numbers, conservationists say.
But 85 per cent of their habitat of lowland heaths has disappeared since 1800 and the rest remains under threat from development, encroaching scrub, fire and erosion, putting the snake at risk.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund has awarded £412,000 to Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) on a “snakes in the heather” project to build a record of numbers and find out what needs to be done to secure their future.
Smooth snakes were first identified in the UK in 1852 at Parley Common in Dorset – a site now managed by ARC.
They live in southern England’s lowland heaths, mainly in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, with isolated populations in West Sussex and Devon.
Experts will train hundreds of volunteers to record, monitor and survey smooth snake populations and will conserve important habitats for the reptile. The project will also develop an “opportunity map” using mapping tools and data to identify habitats that most need conserving.
The project will also raise awareness of the snake and create a smooth snake conservation handbook to help citizen scientists get involved and promote the needs of the species.
ARC has launched the project with support from organisations including the RSPB and National Trust. Dr Tony Gent, ARC’s chief executive, said: “The smooth snake spends much of its life well camouflaged in deep stands of mature heather, but it is a genuinely attractive animal – slim, greyish or brownish, but often with a rainbow sheen, a black heart-shaped mark on its head and a distinctive black eye stripe like a mask.
“It has small scales and the skin is smooth, hence its name.”