Country diary: Quick thinking to save a slow worm

I came across it stretched out on the lane in the sunshine like a length of cable. A handspan from end to end, it took a moment to recognise the gleaming cord as a living creature – a slow worm, soaking up the warmth of the road surface. It’s a species I seldom see alive around my Dartmoor home.

Over the years I have regularly found dead individuals along this village lane: golden bracelets hammered flat by passing traffic. This one, lying motionless, was risking the same fate, so I crouched down to pick it up.

Roused from its stupor, it began wriggling frantically, fully charged with solar energy. I had to be careful not to grasp its rear end as a slow worm will shed its tail to escape, being a legless lizard – a term that sounds like the punchline to a joke about boozing reptiles.

Related: Country diary: A warm and safe place for slow worms to breed

While a slow worm can be mistaken for a snake, it lacks the contours of a serpent, the jawline or patterning. Its simple shape is a smooth cylinder that hardly distinguishes head from body from tail – it might have been rolled by a child from Play-Doh.

Once in my hands, it calmed and I could observe it more closely. The burnished colouring reminded me of brass trumpet pipe, while dark flanks and belly, coupled with a pencil line of black down the back, indicated that this was a female. Males are greyer, more uniform in colour and have a light underside.

I took it through to my garden and released it beneath a piece of corrugated iron laid on top of my compost heap. The rusting metal sheet was put there several years ago in the hope that slow worms would be attracted by the trapped heat beneath. So far, it had only provided shelter for a toad or two.

Slow worms are widespread reptiles in the UK, known to make themselves at home in gardens, both rural and urban, and I hope this one sticks around. They are supposedly long-lived – at least those that avoid basking on tarmac. So until they evolve decent road sense, I’m happy to act as crossing patrol and steer those I find to safety.

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