The National Lottery Heritage Fund has awarded £412,000 to Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) to help save the UK’s rarest reptile.

The smooth snake is having a rough time. Its habitats are under threat and its secretive behaviour means not enough is known to help the species effectively.

Using National Lottery funding, ARC and its partners will work with hundreds of volunteers and citizen scientists to conserve habitats, build a vital record of populations and find out what needs to be done to secure the future of the species.

The smooth snake is one of only three native snake species, the others being the better-known adder and the grass snake. The RSPB’s 2016 State of Nature report warned that half of our native species have declined, and some experts believe as many as 60% of the world’s reptile species are threatened.

The smooth snake was first identified in the UK in 1852 at Parley Common  in Dorset, a site now managed by ARC, but we still know so little about the smooth snake that there are no records of their numbers. 

There is no doubt that they are at risk however. Smooth snakes live in southern England’s lowland heaths, predominately in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey with isolated populations in West Sussex and Devon. Since 1800, 85% of lowland heath habitats have disappeared and today remain at risk from development pressures, scrub encroachment, accidental and deliberate fires and erosion.

ARC has launched its Snakes in the Heather project with support from a number of other organisations including the RSPB, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and the Forestry Commission.  All have agreed to give access to their land for monitoring and surveys.

The project will:

  • Conserve important smooth snake habitats across southern England
  • Train hundreds of volunteers to record, monitor and survey smooth snake populations
  • Develop an ‘Opportunity Map’ using GIS mapping and data to identify habitats most in need of conservation
  • Raise awareness of the smooth snake and inspire people to look after habitats with an ambitious community engagement programme
  • Create a Smooth Snake Conservation Handbook to help citizen scientists get involved and to promote understanding of the species’ needs
  • Share findings with organisations across the UK to inform future conservation work.

The project will have wider benefits for nature too. The smooth snake is an important part of the ecosystem, feeding mainly on lizards and occasionally small mammals, and helping the smooth snake will enable many other species, common and rare, to thrive.

Dr Tony Gent, ARC’s Chief Executive Officer, 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 & 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 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.”

ARC also thanks the Banister Charitable Trust and Love the Forest for generous donations to the Snakes in the Heather project.