Factsheet

Snake (Smooth)

Smooth snakes are extremely rare in this country and you are unlikely to see one. They live only in a few isolated areas of heathland in Southern England.

Overview

Illustration of a Smooth Snake

Order: Squamata

Family: Colubridae

Species: Coronella austriaca

IUCN Red List Status:  Least concern.

Distribution:   Very rare in the UK.  Only found on sandy heaths in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, along with reintroduced populations in Devon and West Sussex. 

Found in southern Scandinavia and the Baltic, scattered populations in western, central and eastern Europe, northern Turkey, the Caucasus, northern Iran and Kazakhstan.  Also found on the Italian islands of Elba and Sicily.

Habitat:  Dry, sunny places in open woods, heaths and along banks. Sandy heathland. Often occurs in places where the sand lizard is found.

Life-span:  Up to 20 years.

Size:  60 - 70cm, females often bigger than males.  Weight: up to 100g.

Credits

Image: Snake (Smooth) by Alexandre Roux

Information sourced from:

Froglife (2015), Amphibians and Reptiles, Smooth Snake [online], Available from: http://www.froglife.org/amphibians-and-reptiles/smooth-snake/ [accessed 14/08/2015].

Appearance

The smooth snake is slim, with a grey or dull brown body and dark bar markings.  Unlike the adder, or the grass snake, the scales are smooth, giving this snake it’s common name. It has a dark marking on the top of the head, which is often in the shape of a crown, giving rise to its generic name Coronella (which means coronet, or crown). the smooth snake also has a dark stripe running from each nostril, past the eye, and along the side of its head. Its head is an oval shape and it has round eyes and a dark red tongue.

Photo: Bernard Dupont

Introduction

Smooth snakes are active during the day, and spend most of their time either basking in the sun or lying in water. They are slow moving and rather secretive. They are also extremely rare in this country, so you are unlikely to see one. They live only in a few isolated areas of heathland in Hampshire, Dorset, Surrey, Wiltshire and Sussex.

In common with all of the UK’s reptiles, smooth snakes are ectothermic, meaning they cannot generate their own body heat.  They like to bask entwined in heather, so that they remain well camouflaged. They spend much of their time hidden in holes in the ground, loose soil and sand and in leaf litter or undergrowth.

Food and Hunting

Young smooth snakes feed exclusively on small reptiles.  Adults will eat small rodents, lizards, other smooth snakes(!) and occasionally invertebrates.

Smooth snakes are constrictors, they strike their prey swiftly and subdue it by gripping it in their mouths whilst wrapping their coils around their bodies to suppress struggling.  Once suitably weakened, the prey is swallowed alive. If threatened, they will bite readily, and tend to hang on. They also produce a foul-smelling substance from their anal glands as a means of defence. Their bite, though painful is not poisonous.

Breeding

Smooth snakes hibernate from around October in groups of up to 30 snakes. They emerge from hibernation in March or April to feed and possibly to mate.  Mating takes place in April and May, with females incubating the eggs inside their bodies, then giving birth to up to 15 live young that look like miniature adults in September or October. Females do not breed every year. The smooth snake has a relatively long life span of up to 20 years, so the need to breed regularly is less and they will often not breed in years where food is more scarce.

Protecting the Smooth Snake

The main reason for the scarceness of smooth snakes is the destruction of their habitat - a problem they share with the sand lizard, with which they share much of their remaining territory. Areas of heathland are being destroyed to make way for the building of houses, and where this is happening, smooth snakes are dying out.  However, they also have plenty of predators, including birds of prey, foxes, badgers, weasels, pheasants and crows. Additional dangers come from areas where housing is near heathland, as the snakes are vulnerable to attacks by domestic cats and people. As a defensive mechanism, they can secrete a foul-smelling substance from their anal glands.  This is designed to put off predators!

Smooth snakes are now fully protected in this country under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and their habitat is protected under European law.  They cannot be killed, injured, traded, disturbed or have their habitats damaged or destroyed by humans.

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