Zaltys, friendly snake messenger of the gods

Grass Snake. Bourne Park. September 2014. Copyright © Mike Burns-Stark 2014.

Grass Snake. Bourne Park. September 2014. Copyright © Mike Burns-Stark 2014.

For those of us who may have been thinking that summer was over for this year, the warm weather earlier in the week was an unexpected pleasure, a bonus which brought out our wildlife to make the most of the late summer sun.

One creature which was very active in Bourne Park on Tuesday was the Grass Snake, (Natrix Natrix, sub species Helvetica) pictured above at the lake. There were a number of Grass Snakes to be seen swimming easily and rather elegantly across the water at around lunch time when the valley bowl was a scorching sun trap. Although sometimes confused with our venomous adder, the harmless Grass Snake is easily distinguished by a yellow band just behind the head: this can vary from a vivid yellow to a pale creamy colour.

The Grass Snake is the most common of our three native snakes and it is also found all over Eurasia and parts of North Africa. However they are not seen in Scotland, and are entirely absent from Ireland because as legend states Saint Patrick rid the country of all snakes. Although they are most commonly seen in this country at lengths of up to about three feet adults in warmer countries can grow to a rather intimidating six or seven feet long. If threatened and cornered they may rear up and appear aggressive but they are non-venomous, and rarely ever bite humans so they are of no real threat to us. However if the snakes are attacked they sometimes roll over and play dead, often emitting a foul garlic smelling substance which is intended to put off any creature hoping to eat them. Predators are surprisingly numerous and include herons, hedgehogs, weasels and birds of prey. In modern times they are also commonly the victims of mowers, strimmers and domestic cats.

During the winter Grass Snakes hibernate in deep leaf moult, wood piles or underground burrows, then in spring they emerge to feed on a seasonal diet, beginning with small fish, moving on to young spawning newts and later frogs and toads: accordingly they inhabit grassy areas near lakes and rivers where they will find such prey.

In Britain snakes are often regarded with fear and revulsion, but in the Baltic regions of Europe the timid Grass Snake is regarded very fondly and to kill one is to invite bad luck upon one’s family. In Lithuania ‘Zaltys’ the Grass Snake is the messenger of the ancient gods, bringing good luck and fertility to all and, up until quite recently, many country folk kept a Grass Snake as a member of the family just as we might keep a much loved cat or dog. In Denmark rural people used to place piles of heather at the foot of their beds so that the snakes could come into the house and nestle in a warm bed. It was considered great fortune to have a Grass Snake in the house and tales abound of Danish children sharing their breakfast milk with the family Grass Snake in the days just before the dawn of the 20th century.

In England Grass Snakes are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and there can be no justification for anyone to harm one.

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