By Kevin Clarke
Kev is a member of Northants Amphibian & Reptile Group and Chair of Nottinghamshire ARG where he lives. Here he describes a day of two halves that he spent in the middle of February preparing for the coming reptile season, only to realise that it had already started. Ken also helped to write an article about the distribution and status of Adders in Rockingham Forest, which you can find in the wildlife section of this website.
The morning - preparing for spring and summer
On Friday 17th February I was due to meet up with Susannah O’Riordan (Butterfly Conservation) to set out a reptile survey on one of the large private estates in the Rockingham Forest area.
The area supports all four of the reptiles found in the midlands - Grass Snakes, Common Lizards, Slow Worms and Adders.
The survey we were going to set up was mainly to discover if Adders are present on the estate and if so, in what kind of numbers? This can be done by placing artificial ‘refuges’ - corrugated tins or roofing felt (as shown here) to attract reptiles to bask on or under, regulating their body temperature. We had been excited to know that an Adder had been spotted on the estate last year, some miles away from the main known population.
So we had been invited by the landowner to set up a survey nearby. We are hoping this may help us discover if there are more in the area, enabling the land owner to plan a sympathetic land management policy.
So back to the nitty gritty of the day…. The weather was playing kind today with only partly clouded skies, and sunshine promised for the afternoon. We arrived at the meeting point around 9.00am, and met up with Alan at the estate office. The landowner had very kindly asked Alan to be our guide and helper. As a farmer on the estate, he has been there for many years and was a superb help through the morning. We certainly couldn’t have got so much done without him.
Luckily for us the estate already had loads of corrugated refuges from previous ecological surveys, so we loaded up the cars with some of the best of these and set off to our destination.
I had already picked out and plotted some locations, which I thought had potential for reptiles and with which the landowner was happy. We visited each area that had been chosen and laid out the artificial refuges in different areas of interest, woodland edges, bracken and bramble edges, close proximity to a stream and roadside hedgerows. All of these will be regularly checked for the presence of Adders at intervals during the spring and summer – lots of work ahead!
For each one, we recorded the GPS reference, which I later put onto our ARGWEB system (shown here). This means we can record the data, and also provide the landowner and partners with information on the results of our survey visits.
By about lunch time we had finished setting up the survey and realised we had put out 97 refuges! The car was a mess, and Susannah and I were ready for a drink, so we thanked Allan for all his help and set off to Top Lodge, Fineshade for a hot drink.
The afternoon – seeing the signs of spring!
After some chatting and a lovely cup of tea, I decided to have a bit of a reptile ramble around the woods in the Fineshade area, the sun was out and it was feeling quite warm so I was hopeful to see something reptilian. Within 100 yards of setting off, I had found a perfect start to the afternoon, a male Adder basking under a tree, next to a hole, which may have been its hibernation area.
I am always excited to find an Adder, and even more so as it was my first one in 2023. They are such beautiful snakes that should be admired and revered, but even to this day, they are still persecuted and are decreasing throughout the UK. In my home county of Nottinghamshire, there are no Adders, so I feel really lucky to be involved in organisations that look to protect these animals and help them thrive in Rockingham Forest.
I knew that this male Adder was just coming out of hibernation and needed to be left alone to warm up in the sun, so I took a quick couple of photos and left him to it. The Ravens and Marsh Tits were very noticeably in voice and the Red Kites seemed to be everywhere today, probably sensing the coming of spring.
At the far end of the woods, I always check any gullies for water, as this kind of area can harbour newts foraging for food or just hiding away. With rainfall having been very low this winter, I wasn’t holding out much hope for any sightings, but luckily I found two of the local newts in a couple of these wet areas that held water. One was a female Great Crested Newt Female, and the other a male Palmate Newt, the commonest newt in the area.
Great Crested Newts are have complete legal protection. You need a special licence to survey for them, photograph them or handle them, but they are quite common in the area. They are our biggest newt species. Smooth Newts can also be found here, but the Palmate is the most common in Rockingham Forest.
All these newts live on land most of the year, but need to return to water to breed, so Rockingham Forest, with its old gravel pits, woodland ponds and ditches, provides an excellent place for these animals to live and thrive.
After taking some photos of the two newts, I set off back to Top Lodge, checking some known areas for reptiles on the way. Again I got lucky when I spotted another male Adder tucked deeply away in the undergrowth. I took another photo using the zoom on my phone and left him to continue to warm up.
The temperature was probably about 12 degrees in the afternoon, really warm for February. This had provided a good opportunity to spot the animals I did, and when I was nearly back to my car, the first Adder that I had seen earlier was still there, basking away, preparing himself for the year ahead.
It certainly made me smile: this Adder had just gone through winter, in brumation (another word for hibernation). He had certainly had no food since October and probably would not eat anything until late April. These amazing animals certainly deserve our respect, and the best way we can respect them is by making sure they have a home where they can thrive! Rockingham Forest is that home in this part of the world. Remember, if you are lucky enough to see these animals, smile in admiration of such an amazing survivor then leave them be, remembering the wild encounter you have just had.
Home time, with a smile and a great sense of achievement. Although the car cleaning might just bring me down to earth...