In this Snakes in the Heather blog update we hear from Tim Trent, a Master of Science (MSc) student who undertook a work experience placement at ARC, as well as a dissertation research project to investigate the activities of snakes after dark. Tim’s work highlights the importance of gaining a sound knowledge of a species’ ecology and behaviour to help us know how to conserve it – especially for our cryptic and poorly understood snakes.

As a student at Bournemouth University studying an MSc Biodiversity Conservation course, I first discovered Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC) through the university’s placement scheme – through which students undertake a number of weeks placement working for an environmental sector organisation to gain valuable experience to support their careers. ARC works in partnership with a number of schools, colleges and universities to provide placements for students, as part of a varied programme of community outreach throughout Great Britain.

After a successful application and interview process, I started my work placement at ARC, joining the Snakes in the Heather (SitH) team – ARC’s flagship project to help the conservation of the rare and secretive smooth snake across its range in southern England, where it can only be found on our internationally important lowland heathland habitats. Following my induction, I joined a SitH Reptile Survey Training Event, alongside new recruits on their journey to become a Reptile Surveyor for the SitH project. The course covered reptile identification, ecology & behaviour, survey methods and health & safety. The next step in the training led me to join several Group Reptile Surveys at heathland sites in Dorset, which gave me the opportunity to test what I had learnt at the training event and improve my field craft skills. This included checking Artificial Cover Objects (ACOs) – these are materials such as sheets of corrugated metal, placed in suitable reptile habitat to encourage the animals to bask underneath or on top, so aiding their detection.

Here I had my first ever encounter with the gorgeous smooth snake. A feisty male was caught and carefully handled by the survey leader, to determine sex and to assess body condition for research purposes. The snake quickly calmed and I was given the chance to handle this very docile species myself. Smooth snakes really are smooth! Unlike the adder and grass snake, the smooth snake lacks keels (ridges) that run down the centre of each scale, making them very smooth to the touch. As a species that likes to burrow, the smooth body of the smooth snake helps them to slither easily through heather and moss out of sight.

As such a cryptic and poorly understood species, I felt both privileged to see one and to do my bit to help their conservation – in collecting records that guide future surveys and inform the management and protection of their precious heathland home. It was truly a unique and memorable experience, and one that reassured me that my chosen career path into the conservation sector was the right one. On completion of the reptile survey training, I received an ARC survey accreditation, which allowed me to carry out independent surveys at sites where smooth snake and sand lizard are present. Due to the strict legal protection of these species, all SitH project Reptile Surveyors must be appropriately trained and licenced to survey lawfully on lowland heathland reserves.

As well as undertaking my work placement with ARC, I also undertook reptile focussed research as my MSc dissertation project; guided by my supervisor at Bournemouth University, Prof. Anita Diaz, and the ARC Team. My study investigated the ecology and behaviour of snakes after dark, which has never been formally researched before in the UK. The idea is underpinned by the observations of David C Wareham, who published an article in the British Herpetological Society (BHS) Bulletin back in 1997. During a warm August night of that year, he sat patiently at an adder hotspot. Using a night vision camera, adders were witnessed moving around from dusk, and over the duration of the entire night until dawn.

With the help of Ben Limburn (SitH Project Officer), and ARC Reptile Survey volunteers Nick Dobbs, Rosie Nicoll and Sam Alford, surveys were undertaken at dusk (6-9pm) and at night (9-12am) in the mid-summer months of July and August. Six heathland sites in Dorset were chosen for the study, targeting known adder hotspots. Walking a transect across, we used a thermal imaging camera and head torches to see if we could find any reptiles active at these times, and hopefully capture their behaviours. Theoretically we expect snakes to be more active at these times – foraging for food outside of the hotter daytime temperatures at this time of year.

The heaths were eerily beautiful at night and could be the perfect prelude to any horror movie, especially when our torches illuminated the eye shine of cattle and nightjars! We found all six native reptile species during our surveys, with adders present under ACOs right up until 10pm. It is widely suggested that reptile surveys should be avoided in the hot summer months, whereas my study proves that surveys can be productive in the cooler hours of a hot summer day – albeit at times when you would normally be eating your dinner and settling down to watch a Netfix show! Although my investigation was limited to a small number of surveys, and only until the midnight hour, there is much scope for further investigation; that can help to better understand the needs of these secretive and poorly understood species and inform changes to the way that we approach reptile surveys.

It was a pleasure to join the ARC team and lead on such an innovative and exciting research project.  During the intensity of undertaking a full-time MSc course, I found my time on the heath was both literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. I loved every minute. I will not soon forget the feeling of excitement and anticipation before lifting each ACO, and my new-found intrigue and fascination for reptiles has me hooked. Carrying out reptile surveys with ARC has allowed me to gain practical experience and specialist knowledge to support my career in the conservation sector.  I have learned so much in such a short time, which to me is invaluable.

Finally, I thank staff at Forestry England for loan of a thermal imaging camera, and the following organisations and their staff who allowed me to carry out surveys on their reserves: National Trust (Purbeck), Dorset Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole (BCP) Council.

Tim Trent – MSc Conservation Biology student at Bournemouth University