The secretive smooth snake is to get a helping hand with a project to monitor, record and protect the UK’s rarest reptile and its home, it has been announced.
The smooth snake is one of only three native snake species, and so little is known about them that no records exist of their numbers, conservationists say.
But 85% of their habitat of lowland heaths has disappeared since 1800 and the rest remains under threat from development, encroaching scrub, fire and erosion – putting the snake at risk.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund has awarded £412,000 to Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) on a “snakes in the heather” project to build a record of numbers and find out what needs to be done to secure their future.
Smooth snakes were first identified in the UK in 1852 at Parley Common in Dorset, a site now managed by ARC.
They live in southern England’s lowland heaths, mainly in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, with isolated populations in West Sussex and Devon.
Experts will train hundreds of volunteers to record, monitor and survey smooth snake populations and will conserve important habitats for the reptile.
The project will also develop an “opportunity map” using mapping tools and data to identify habitats which most need conserving.
The project will also raise awareness of the snake and inspire people to look after its habitats and create a smooth snake conservation handbook to help citizen scientists get involved and promote the needs of the species.
ARC has launched the project with support from organisations including the RSPB, National Trust, Wildlife Trust, Plantlife and Forestry Commission, who have agreed to give access to their land for monitoring and surveys.
Dr Tony Gent, ARC’s chief executive, said: “We would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to National Lottery players for helping us to launch this exciting project.
“It is especially appropriate that we are able to announce the project today on World Snake Day.
“The smooth snake spends much of its life well camouflaged in deep stands of mature heather, but it is a genuinely attractive animal – slim, greyish or brownish but often with a rainbow sheen, a black heart-shaped mark on its head and a distinctive black eye stripe like a mask.
“It has small scales and the skin is smooth – hence its name.”
Stuart Hobley, area director London and South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “You’ve heard of snakes on a plane, but not enough people have heard about snakes on the plains.
“Heather habitats are vital to a menagerie of reptiles, lizards and mammals and thanks to National Lottery players, ARC is setting out to get hundreds of people involved in securing the future of the smooth snake.
“Our natural heritage is a key priority for National Lottery funding and this exciting project will have a huge impact not just for the UK’s rarest reptile but also for its wider habitats and the other species that call them home.”