When I was a child, I witnessed my parent’s gardener killing a snake. It was a beautiful, large grass snake. He brought a spade down sharply behind its head as it rippled across the lawn. At the age of five I knew this was wrong. Instead of making me afraid of snakes, this has given me a lifelong affinity for them.
The grass snake, Natrix helvetica, is harmless, but I like to think that the gardener didn’t know this. In Northumberland they are extremely rare, so it’s unlikely that I will ever find one here. On the moors above this valley, though, I might spot a shy adder – Vipera berus, the UK’s only venomous snake – as it slithers away to safety.
So there are no snakes in my garden, but there are slowworms. Snake-like, these are legless lizards. Look in their eyes and you can see the difference: instead of the snakes’ vertically split pupil, theirs are rounded with eyelids that blink. This garden, with its dense borders, meadows and mulches, is a place where slowworms breed each year.
I lift the carpet that covers the compost to feel heat emanating from the sticky brown rot. With three wooden bins – one being filled, one cooking and one cooling – there’s always a spot with the right temperature for Anguis fragilis. And there, locked in an embrace in the luxurious warmth, are two sleek slowworms. The male has his jaws clamped behind the female’s head; they can stay like that for up to 10 hours.
The female is pale bronze, with a dark stripe down her long back. The male is smaller. Ovoviparous, she will incubate her eggs internally before the young hatch, feeding off the yolks. She’ll give birth to up to 15 tiny wormlings that I might find when I next lift the square of carpet. The compost heap is full of the invertebrates they’ll feed on: spiders, earthworms, beetles and slugs.
I’ve laid sheets of tin as refugia for the slowworms to take cover, though if attacked they can self-amputate, the shed tail writhing as a distraction. With luck, they can live for 20 years. I quickly replace the carpet, leaving the pair in peace.