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Two outstretched front legs and a small head protruded from its mouth. The light in the prey’s eyes appeared to have faded; it was helpless, caught in the vice like grip of a hungry predator, its hind legs and body already sliding down its captor’s throat.

The hunter’s lidless eyes glared back at me with menace, its throat bulging, its lower jaw seemingly set to breaking point. I wondered what the equivalent would be for myself in terms of scale; perhaps trying to swallow an apple whole would come close? Without breaking eye contact, the grass snake stealthily slithered away into the undergrowth. I noted its green-beige body, broken by a yellow and black collar behind its head and further specks of dark markings along it length. 

Throughout March and April the pond, brimming with frogs, toads and their spawn becomes a magnet for predators. Early morning, before the noisy wardens fire up their grass cutting machines, sees the herons lining the shallows, gobbling up the spawn and its makers. On sneaking past the Thatch one morning I spied one of these gangly birds stabbing down with its dagger-like beak. As its head rose up, an impaled frog squirmed away, pierced on the tip of the heron’s beak where it flailed miserably, swiftly to be consumed into the depths of the heron’s gullet.

Grass snake

Grass snake, taken by Warden Will

Closer inspection revealed otter spraints by the bench overlooking the water. I could only imagine the devastation this streamlined mammal caused as it powered through the water, enjoying this free for all, nature’s spring bounty. Needless to say, as the days marched on into May, despite the efforts of the predators, small black clouds of frogspawn filled the bays around the reed-lined edges. Life would go on, although the tadpoles’ battle with predation would continue. Many a hungry terror lurked beneath the water’s surface.  

Despite the ferociousness of these other predators, it’s only snakes which send a small wave of alarm rippling through me whenever I see one. I am not scared of them as such; in fact I have handled both grass snakes and adders in a previous job role regularly enough. Perhaps it is another one of those ancient instincts within us, a natural caution to something of which species in other countries could well kill us with a single bite. Thankfully grass snakes are not venomous, instead often releasing a pungent smell not too dissimilar to rotting vomit (lovely!) when grabbed as a predator deterrent, alongside the ability to play dead. 

It is no exaggeration when I inform visitors of the impressive size that female grass snakes grow to. They can be as thick as your wrist and up to 1.5 metres long with an average lifespan of 15-25 years. Males tend to be much smaller, as I recently witnessed when walking through the woodlands one sunny afternoon…

A sudden rustle in amongst the dead of last year’s bracken fonds alerted me to the presence of a large female grass snake, slithering off away from me. As I stared, I noticed her body was still coiled at the end, tangled in a knot as she dragged it along. But then another head appeared, being dragged backwards, wearing a slightly alarmed expression. Alas, I had not found the world’s first doubled-headed grass snake, but instead had disturbed a mating pair. I felt a wave of pity for the smaller male as he was dragged off, I wouldn’t fancy it that way myself!

grass snake on path

A grass snake basks in the sunlight (not taken at Wheatfen)

During the winter months, when cutting back the reeds, piles of the cut vegetation are often left in strategic positions near the pathways. Come the spring and summer, grass snakes can be seen basking atop these piles, drawing in heat from the sun to warm their exothermic bodies. Often a rustle and blur of movement is all that is heard or seen in the face of heavy human footfall and noise, but tread lightly and you may just see the grass snake curled up on the top of the stack.

Within the piles of rotting vegetation, the heat given off through fermentation provides the perfect location for grass snakes to lay their eggs to be incubated. Anything between 10 and 40 eggs can be laid, hatching in the autumn. Many of these will be predated themselves, but if luck be on their side, they will survive a winter of hibernation down an old mouse tunnel, to appear again in the heat of a fine spring day.

Gripped by hunger, they will search for prey, ambushing frogs on their slow amble back to the pond. And the cycle begins once more, as all over again the pond fills with the noise of croaking frogs, and the predators draw in.

Will Fitch

Author Will Fitch

I have been the Warden at Wheatfen for a number of years now, helping to look after and manage the reserve with the help of our trusty volunteers. You can often find me either out and about at the reserve, or in the Warden's hut in the car park.

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