The undergrowth crunches beneath my feet as I trek through the scrubland of the Surrey heath; the sun blazing down – a rare treat for an English summer. A basking adder appears, motionless at the foot of a gorse bush. The striking eyes piercing, almost threatening, defying me to make another step. I couldn’t help but marvel at the menacing beauty of the UK’s only poisonous snake.
Sitting at my desk, gazing out the window upon a bleak autumnal day in the sleepy town of Falmouth, I reminisce of my summer days working as a junior conservation officer out in the field. The study site, the Surrey Downs, is a majestic expanse of rolling health and scrubland with scattered woodland patches and is one of my favourite areas, so close to home in the heart of Surrey. With all 6 of the UK’s reptiles residing here, I considered myself lucky and fortunate to be working alongside The Reptile and Amphibian Trust (ARC) and Surrey Amphibian and Reptile Group (SARG).
As a sleepy teenager, days started very early indeed. Greeted by our trusted land rover – “Larry the Landy” – we were then taxied to our study site where we carried out ecological surveys of native reptiles and amphibians, as well as butterfly surveys, looking at population trends. Robin, The Field Officer & Volunteer Co-ordinator, was a hugely influential man, with so much passion and enthusiasm which was reflected in his outgoing, perky personality.
As we strode through the brush, the surrounding wood and scrubland was alive with the melodies of warblers, larks and finches. The undergrowth beneath, bustled with the macroscopic life so many of us overlook, enclosed around my feet. We approached a ground nest found by one of the other volunteers, but quickly made a hasty retreat after discovering whose nest this belonged to. I thought I’d made a lucky escape, but this sense of relief soon evaporated. The inhabitants whose home we infiltrated were fighting back. They were Myrmica rubra, a particular aggressive species of red ant. As I found out, these species were more fond of fighting than they were of fleeing, using stings and bites from their large mandibles as a form of attack. Despite a reaction similar to that of a stinging nettle, when an army of these critters get inside your trousers and up your legs, I can assure you it was slightly more painful than the sting of a nettle.
Ant attack aside, we pressed on through. The sun intensified. The warming temperatures brought out the reptiles, coming to bask in the midday heat. A male sand lizard being one of them. A success story in the making – nearly 2,000 juvenile sand lizards have been reintroduced to their indigenous habitats in Surrey and surrounding areas, with a number of populations now surviving for over two decades since the founder animals were released. On top of this, multiple recordings of hatchlings of a variety of species reiterates the conservation success that groups such as ARC and SARG are having on our local biodiversity. A juvenile grass snake was collected and measurements recorded for national conservation database. Sounds good right? Well it is, apart from the fact that as a defence mechanism, grass snakes excrete a foul-smelling secretion from their anal glands to deter potential predators. Unfortunately for me, I was that potential predator. I was still scrubbing myself days later to escape the putrid smell.
Although very rare, summers do exist here in England. And whilst many of us relish the heat and warmth, these times can be very challenging for wildlife. These habitats are one of the driest in the south with thick, bushy shrubs carpeting huge expanses of land. These shrubs, or heather, are a particularly woody stemmed evergreen species that is particularly prone to fire. Whilst uncommon, wildfires did occur when I was working. Although the reptiles are particularly resilient, their primary habitat was burned, leaving them susceptible to predation from above. In response to this, we positioned artificial refuges such as felt or tin in designated areas. Species congregated under these newly-formed habitats, with a variety of residents occupying the same area. It was quite spectacular to see smooth snakes and slow worms in such close proximity to each other.
Throughout the years I have had some truly memorable experiences with remarkable conservation groups here in the UK that I will never forget. Especially as the work that they are carrying out just keeps growing and growing, and success stories are becoming more frequent than ever with reintroductions and population increases!