Snakes and Lizards

In 1997, when Bill Whitaker wrote his enchanting article describing the Snakes and Lizards of the Hurtwood for the last edition of this handbook, his final paragraph ended with the words: “Hopefully, with vigilance and care in continuing to implement the conservation strategy, the success of the project will continue into the next century.”

smooth snakeWell, Bill will be pleased to know that well into the “next century”, the conservation strategy has continued apace and the site to which he was referring has steadily improved both in terms of size and quality. Over the years the site has been enlarged as a result of work undertaken by both the Herpetological Conservation Trust and the Friends of the Hurtwood, so that the spread of the hurtleberry (from which some say the Hurtwood derives its name) and heathers has increased significantly, thus providing more habitat for the snakes and lizards and an open area large enough for species of heathland birds to move into and take up territories; this is so particularly with the nightjar, whose distinctive night-time cherring call is not unlike, and indeed is occasionally mistaken for, the call of the natterjack toad, also a heathland species. The cryptic plumage of the nightjar blends perfectly with the dead bracken and “heathland litter” in which this ground nester fashions its makeshift nest. Stonechats are to be seen sitting atop young pine trees singing to defend their territory and the diminutive Dartford warbler, a species on the verge of extinction in the early Sixties and the only species of warbler to brave the English winter, appeared on the site some years ago for the first time, and is now a regular sight.

A belt of mature pine oak and birch running along the eastern edge of the site has now been felled by the Estate, increasing the heathland habitat and revealing a fine and uninterrupted view of the North Downs away to the northwest, an improvement much appreciated by all.

Of the six species of reptile indigenous to the UK, the Hurtwood in 1999 supported five, including the sand lizard introduced by the British Herpetological Society in 1986. Very few areas within the county and indeed very few counties in Britain have examples of all six animals. The status of the Hurtwood as a haven for the British reptiles was enhanced in 2000 when 11 examples of the nationally endangered smooth snake were introduced on to the site. The necessary translocationlicence was issued by English Nature (now renamed Natural England) to enable suitable examples to be caught on sites in Dorset either owned or under the management control of the Herpetological Conservation Trust. Nine years on, it can be reported that the introduction has been a great success, with evidence of breeding taking place during the second year of the release and the fact that the animals are continually colonising suitable heathland areas adjacent to the original release area.

Over the years, the Trust and the Bray Estate have enjoyed a long and friendly working relationship, thus enabling the site to be developed into one of Surrey’s premier reptile havens. Current changes in the manner in which government conservation funding is to be delivered should ensure adequate funding to the Trust for at least the next ten years, thus ensuring the continued maintenance and improvement of the site.

Mike Preston

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Ranger's Blog

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