Sunday, November 24, 2013

Grass Snake/ Snog

Natrix natrix

grass snake, photo: stig bachmann nielsen,

The grass snake ( also called the ringed snake or water snake) is a Eurasian non-venomous snake - and the name natrix is probably derived from the Latin nare or natare "to swim". It is widely distributed in mainland Europe, ranging from mid Scandinavia to southern Italy. It is also found in Middle East and northwestern Africa. British grass snakes belong to the subspecies N. n. helvetica. This species is one of only three snakes to occur in Great Britain, and is distributed throughout lowland areas of England and Wales, it is almost absent from Scotland and is not found in Ireland, which has no native snakes.

The grass snake (Natrix natrix) is one of few snakes in Denmark. The Danish name is: Snog. It is usually black with a lighter underside, the two yellow neck spots are its most important characteristics, but the yellow spots might be absent in some rare cases. The grass snake is recognized from the viper by that its head is evenly into the body and that it has a circular pupil. In Denmark are found grass snakes of ab. 132 cm lenght. The female is averagely longer than the male. (average 100 cm)  The newly hatched young ones look like the adults, but some young snakes might have a zigzag stripe down the front part of the back, and thereby be mistaken for vipers. The grass snake can bite, but it is not poisonous and is usualy not aggresive towards humans.

Not being venomous, the snake's only defence is to produce a garlic-smelling fluid from the anal glands, or to feign death by becoming completely limp.The snake may also perform an aggressive display in defence, hissing and striking without actually opening the mouth. It rarely bites in defence. It may also secrete blood from the mouth and nose whilst playing dead. Its enemies are various predator species, including corvids, storks, owls and perhaps other birds of prey, and foxes.

The grass snake is protected in Denmark and many of its habitats are protected according to law. It lives in most of the country, but is rare north of Limfjorden and is not seen on some of the Isles. During the latest 100 years the grass snake has declined considerably in Denmark. In Europe the grass snake is protected by the Bern-convention. 

grass snake hunting, Sweden, photo; wikipedia.

The young grass snake eats earthworms, snails without house, insects, fish fry and tadpoles. The adult snake hunts especially frogs and toads and it swims elegantly out into the water for frogs, but is also seen hunting along the edge of a lake. When the snake is close to the prey it uses its sense of smell to catch it. The adult grass snake feeds almost exclusively on amphibians, although they occassionally eat lesser mammals and fish. A grass snake in captivity can eat earthworms, but it never feeds on carrion. Contrarily to the python the grass snake consumes the prey while it is alive and is not influenced by the poison from amphibians.

The grass snake is especially found along rivers, lakes and bogs, but also in heaths, in forest clearings, in field borders and stone dikes. It demands a varied terrain, and its preferred habitat is lakes and bogs where the sun shines - and which is surrounded by forest. If you see many frogs somewhere, you'll probably also find grass snakes. The chance to see them is especially in the afternoon where they are most active, since the water is warmest at that time.The grass snake has declined in Denmark since its prey, frogs and toads have declined in numbers and spread. Their habitats have disappeared or they are destroyed. The landscapes are more uniform and the snake needs stone dikes, field borders and alike in order to find a suitable place for laying eggs. The manure by the farms where the grass snake can lay its egss have become rare.

grass snake swimming, photo: wikipedia

Grass snakes, as with most reptiles, are at the mercy of the thermal environment and need to overwinter in areas which are not subject to freezing. Thus, they typically spend the winter underground where the temperature is relatively stable. The males appear in the end of March after hibernating in winter, and they start to sunbathe near the winter-quarter. They are ready to mate at the end of April after they have been moulting which occurs at least once during the active season. As the outer skin wears and the snake grows, the skin loosens from the body, including from the eyes, which may turn a milky white colour at this time. This presumably affects the eyesight of the snakes and they do not move or hunt during this time. The outer skin is eventually sloughed in one piece (inside-out) and normal movement activity is resumed.

bog lake Rebild Forest 2012, gb
At this point the females appear and the mating happens in the beginning of May. The females lay their eggs in mid-summer. The eggs have to be placed where it is moist and warm in a landscape like in Denmark, where the grass snake uses manures, compost piles, and piles with garden waste. Laying eggs might happen in a compost pile at least 15 cm inside the pile. The litter of the grass snake is averagely 13 eggs.The eggs are hatched in the middle of or the end of September, and  the young ones can take food at once.

If the weather is cold, the grass snake hibernates without having eaten. The young ones live very hidden and grow 10-15 cm each year. The males are mature after the third winter, the females after the fourth winter. Some grass snakes can reach an age of 23 years. In August-September the animals return to their winter quarter. If it is hot enough the snakes might mate once again. They hibernate in late September or in the beginning of October. When overwintering they demand a place which is not too moist, like a southfacing hill in the edge of a bog area, but they might also overwinter among stones in ruins, in stoneworks at old bridges, in abandoned fox graves or hollows under trees.

fairy tale  folklore
In Danish folklore the snakes are both large and very varied. The stories about the house snake is a lesser group and those stories mostly belong to Jutland.

The country people were very familiar with its presence and they rarely hurt the grass snake, which almost belonged to the livestock like the stork did. The snake was considered as a protector of the house and a good spirit. The grass snakes liked to go into the houses and they were allowed to do so in many places, since they repaid this freedom by cleaning the house from mice and insects. And people accepted that the snake drank the cream and the milk from the milk jug and lived in and under the beds.

The beds were in "the old days" mostly alcoves with curtains or wooden doors. In the bottom of the bed were placed heather bundles as close as possible and above this was spread the bedstraw. Such a bed bottom was a popular place for the grass snake. It loved the heat, and the goodnatured animal became easily domesticated with people, who did not hurt them. The snake often resided in houses and stables.
There are many stories about children sharing their porridge and milk with a grass snake, and the parents thought it meant great luck for a child to eat together with a snake. An old man told about his childhood in the late 1890s: "When our parents were out working in the field,  and while we children were sitting eating, the grass snakes came and began to lap up the milk, but we thought it was exciting. "

alcove bed, wikipedia
In a village Hesselholt, Mammen parish were so many grass snakes that they walked across the floors when there was silence in the house. In many villages and parishes are told about grass snakes living in the bottom of the beds. In Kragelund, Mid-Jutland someone told that there was a big number of snakes in the manure and in the heather bundles of the beds, and the snakes milked the cows! This was a constant rumour everywhere. An old woman told about Vissing kloster. Here were so many grass snakes that they walked into the houses and resided in the alcove beds. There are lots of stories about the grass snakes living in the bedstraw and lapping the milk from the porridge.

The Grass Snake King.
The stories about the king of the grass snake are similar to the stories about the Viper King, which can be read in the article about the viper here on Thyra-blog.


Carolyn said...

Love your header, Grethe… and I didn't know all this about a grass snake…

AND how interesting that ...

"The grass snake is protected in Denmark and many of its habitats are protected according to law."

I grew up with grass snakes being in our garden. I would be afraid but my Dad would say … no, these are beneficial snakes. still didn't like 'em. but I quit telling my dog to 'get em' … ;)

I don't recall any smell though… I didn't hang around them much… they were pretty icky to me ~ no sharing food … at all

What stories! that's a cobra gif… right? looks harmless but… I'm not really into viper stroking ...

Thyra said...

Hej Carolyn!

Nice to see you. I could not find a snake gif yesterday evening, but now I have found a little sweet snake instead of the sweet cobra!

It seems that you lived in a place with many animals in your childhood? I don't like snakes either, but on the other hand I'm sorry that the grass snake has declined here in DK. I have only seen two grass snakes in my whole long life.

I like the folklore stories too.

Grethe ´)

stardust said...

Hello, Grethe. Seeing any kind of snake gives me chills even when they are not venomous. I seem to be weak to their appearance and tongue. But I know my contradiction, I like eating "kabayaki", split eel broiled with sweet sauce. A certain kind of snake is thought to be a protector of the house in Japan. When I saw the cast-off skin of a snake at my grandparents’, I was told so.

The header photo is fascinating.


Thyra said...

Thank you, stardust, there is a Christmas market in the manor right now and it is very cosy. It is actually a manor museum and very interesting to visit.

We have a traditional dish with eel: fried eel with stewed potatos, but your dish sounds good too with sweet sauce.
I don't know if there are other types of eel, but I consider the eel a fish and not a snake although it looks like one!

It's growing cold here now. Soon winter. Maybe we'll have snow for Christmas !

Grethe `)