On the stats for this blog I can see what topics people are searching for and snakes and spiders seem to create most interest. Obviously the warm two days we have just had must have brought out a few snakes as several people have been looking at my photo of a Western Whip snake slithering across our roof.
I have seen 5 different types of snake in this part of France and one could see as many as 7 so here they all are and hopefully this will enable you to identify what you are seeing.
A couple of points to note.
Firstly there is an excellent site called Herp France – do have a look at that. (In fact I have just revisited it and am sort of wondering why I am writing this post given that his site is so good,)
Secondly snakes do quite a lot of good in the countryside and are under threat from various directions, one of which is mans inherent fear of them which sometimes leads to stupid behaviour like the man I saw recently who had stopped his car to get out and beat a snake to death simply because it was there. Also snakes sometimes like to lie under large flat stones or sheets of corrugated iron or similar. People lift them up to see if anything is underneath, see a snake and in fear drop the sheet back on to whatever is underneath. This does not do the poor snake, lizard, or whatever any good so if there is a snake underneath, either wait till it has slithered off, or flip the sheet completely over, back off, wait for the snake to move off and then replace the sheet where it was.
Here is the list with photos and identification notes along with my experiences of the snakes I have come across. ( These photos are not mine – they have been taken from the internet but I will replace them with my own when/if I manage to get a decent photo)
Western Whip Snake. Coluber viridiiflavus. This is the snake I see most often. Once I saw one on our roof going across the tiles. It then disappeared under a tile and presumably hid up between that and the roof lining. A couple of years ago two were on our roof. I think they were probably mating and in the heat of the moment they slid off the roof and landed about two feet to the right of my wife who was sitting on the terrace. One of the pair moved off quite quickly but the other one was more aggressive and proceeded to hiss and strike out as it slowly retreated. This is typical of these snakes – they are quite aggressive and will hiss, coil up and strike out. They are not poisonous but would probably bite if you were stupid enough to pick one up, or if it landed in your lap and not two feet to the side.
They grow quite large, up to 150cm, and they are quite brightly coloured being a bright yellow and with a lot of black or dark markings. They live in dry places and feed largely on lizards and small mammals. Once one was in the hedge at the bottom of our garden and there was a hedge sparrow nesting there. The snake could have been after the young birds but the adults kicked up quite a din and then blackbirds and others joined in. I went to investigate and saw the snake disappearing and the young birds were OK.
Grass Snake. Natrix natrix
I see these quite often as well. I have seen them in the garden, but more often when I am fishing. They are often found close to water as they feed mainly on frogs. They swim well and are often seen swimming in lakes and rivers with just their heads out of the water. One quite large one passed between my legs once when I was clearing some undergrowth at the bottom of the garden- it did make me jump!
They are easy to identify as they always have a bright yellow mark or collar just behind their heads and then a darker almost black region which acts to highlight the yellow. The rest of the body is normally an olive-green colour with little darker markings – nothing dramatic. They can grow up to 180cm in length but more commonly grow to around 100cm. Again they are not poisonous but might bite if you picked them up. They are not naturally aggressive like the Western Whip snake and prefer to disappear rapidly when disturbed. If however you insist on trying to pick one up or your dog is having a go at one then they have two other tricks up their sleeve. One is to emit a milky liquid from their vent which smells disgusting and is quite difficult to get rid of if you get it on your hands or clothes. The other trick is to pretend to be dead. They roll over and open their mouths – it does not look that convincing and why a predatory bird or a hedgehog which might be thinking of eating the snake would leave it alone as a result of this behaviour I do not know – seems like a bad move to me.
Viperine Snake Natrix Maura These snakes are quite variable in colour and look rather like a mix between an adder and a grass snake. When young they can have a yellow collar like the grass snake and they can also develop quite a pattern with spots and zig zags like the adder. However they are always found near water and when in water they will dive down and hide in weed unlike the grass snake that stays on the surface with its head above the water. I think the key identification point is the shape of its head which gets wider and wider before it narrows to the neck region. To me it is the David Coulthard of the snake world, with its very powerful jaws.
These snakes feed almost exclusively on amphibians and fish, particularly frogs and newts which is why they are almost always encountered in or very close to water. They are non-aggressive and not poisonous. They do not grow very large -normally about 70cm in length and not often above 100cm
Aesculapian snake, Zamenis longissimus This is a potentially large snake (up to 200cm long.) It can vary somewhat in colour but is normally grey/green/brown and fairly nondescript. It likes damp humid conditions and is often found where there is rich, diverse vegetation. It likes woodland clearings, but is also quite happy frequenting sheds and outbuildings. It largely feeds on small mammals but “small” in this context can extend up to the size of a fully grown rat, so not that small. It will climb trees and is quite happy to rest in the twigs and branches of a tree. It is not poisonous and not aggressive but equally not particularly scared of human presence, It will stand its ground or back off slowly if approached.
I do not think I have ever seen one of these snakes in the Poitou-Charentes area but that is not to say that they do not exist here. They are said to extend right up to the Paris region.
Smooth snake. Coronella austrriaca These are little and come in two versions, In Poitou-Charentes you are most likely to see the southern Smooth Snake. They are fairly nondescript being generally grey with some darker markings. They grow to about 60/80 cm max and are not poisonous. In fact they subdue their prey by constriction ie like a python or anaconda, but do not worry – they would have trouble constricting your little finger! They feed on lizards, very small rodents, baby birds and large insects. They like dry places and are often found associated with old walls or piles of rubble in which they can hide.
When we first purchased our house in Vienne we often saw smooth snakes around the house and in an outbuilding. The outbuilding had a vast heap of stones from an old demolished wall at one end. It still has some but less than it used to. The house was made of mud, mortar and stones with very thick walls which are very old and full of little and not so little holes. These had been produced by generations of solitary wasps and then expanded by other creatures such as lizards, snakes and rodents. The wall had some big meaty spiders and sometimes fat dormice so it was quite a nature reserve! We often saw smooth snakes in the walls but over the years cracks and holes have been repaired and the inside has had plaster, stabilizer and paint applied so it is less user-friendly for small creatures. We still get wall lizards, spiders and solitary wasps there but no more smooth snakes. When we first came they would sometimes poke their heads out from holes on the inside of the walls much to the consternation of our daughter and on one occasion mother- in-law!
Montpellier Snake. Malpolon monspessulanus This snake lives in the south of France around Montpellier….there’s a surprise. However I am convinced I saw one in my garden of my parents-in-law in Brossac in Charente. My Father- in- law known affectionately as ‘the old fella’ and I were at the bottom of their quite large garden one day when a large snake appeared from a region where there were some piles of stones and boulders. This was a fairly dry region with surrounding vineyards and scrubby woodland now bisected by the route of the new TGV line. The snake was 200cm long or thereabouts. It was greeny grey.It raised itself off the ground like a cobra would and came straight towards us. The only discernible characteristic was that it seemed to have what looked like eyebrows. All of this matches the description of the Montpellier snake which according to distribution maps does not come that far up France. However things change – some years ago there were no wolves in France but there are now.
These snakes grow to about 200cm long and they are poisonous but they are what are called back fang snakes so they cannot bite you and deliver poison. They use the poison to calm their prey down as they swallow it so the only way to get poisoned is to stick your fingers down its throat and then let it bite you. Still they are big chaps and fairly sure of themselves so I would not mess with one. In fact when the old fella and I encountered this one we were both fairly surprised at its attitude and we both slowly backed off, roughly at the same speed as the snake was approaching. Afterwards we both agreed not to mention it to his wife as she has quite a phobia about snakes.
Asp Viper. Vipera latasti To be honest I thought that I had seen Adders in this part of France but evidently I was seeing Asp Vipers. Adders do not live in Poitou-Charentes but Asp Vipers do. They look the same as adders, they live in the same dry heathy places, they are both poisonous, they both grow to about 80cm in length and are quite thick for their length and to the uninitiated (me) they are adders! The difference is that they have a slightly turned up nose! That’s it. One good identifying feature which I have discovered by doing a bit of research for this post is that the pupil of the eyes of adders and vipers, ie the poisonous ones, are narrow and vertical which makes them look mean whereas all the other snakes have round pupils and therefore look less mean- well less mean for a snake anyway. This is quite useful because the viperine snake can look quite similar to an Adder/Viper. However in terms of habitat they live in quite different places. The viperine snake is nearly always close to or in water, whereas adders are not.
If for some reason you get bitten by an asp viper first of all make sure it has actually bitten you, because more often than not they strike out and perform what is known as a dry bite, ie they do not actually sink their fangs in and release poison. That’s nice of them – it’s sort of like firing blanks to disperse a riot, before you shoot into the crowd. If they have actually bitten you, then you will have two little puncture wounds and it will hurt like hell. The asp is said to have a more venomous bite than the adder. Then get medical attention and do not panic- more people die of a heart attack caused by panic because they have been bitten than they do from the actual bite. My dog got bitten by an adder once. She was a springer spaniel and within one hour of the bite to her muzzle it had swollen up and made her look like a Pit bull.. an antihistamine injection put her on the path to recovery and the only long-term effect was white fur on her brown muzzle when the area recovered some weeks later.
If you have any records of snakes in this area please let me know and we can build up a picture of what is where.
Here are two photos supplied by a reader of this blog.
To see other photos I have taken click Alamy Photos