Reptiles are exciting visitors to some lucky gardens, especially those in rural areas or close to undisturbed open spaces in towns and cities. Slow Worm, Common Lizard and Grass Snake are all possible. A good wildlife-friendly garden will have plenty of natural prey for reptiles: Slow Worms and Common Lizards eat a variety of insects, spiders, snails and slugs, while Grass Snakes feed on amphibians and small mammals, fish and birds, and are good swimmers; they often hunt in and around water, including garden ponds.
Reptiles are cold blooded and rely on absorbing heat from their surroundings to get them going. They will often bask in the sun, and providing safe basking sites is a good way to attract reptiles as well as being a good way to get to see them – they will often be in the same predictable spot.
Slow Worms and Common Lizards carry their eggs within them and give birth to live young. Grass Snakes, on the other hand, lay eggs, normally in rotting vegetation (including garden compost heaps) which acts as an incubator. The eggs hatch into miniature versions of the adults.
All reptiles hibernate over the winter. They look for sheltered nooks and crannies where they are protected from predators and extreme temperatures. Wildlife-friendly gardens can provide lots of suitable sites, and you can add a purpose-built artificial hibernacula – ours is a super-sized grassy mound (see box).
Amphibians are also cold blooded, but unlike reptiles they have smooth rather than scaly skin and they lay their eggs in water. Their young (tadpoles) then spend weeks or months in the water before emerging onto dry land. Like reptiles, amphibians hibernate, so suitable hibernacula can help frogs, toads and newts too.
In winter 2017-2018 the Reptile Refuge had a make-over! After many years, blackthorn scrub had severely enclosed the space and little sun was reaching the garden so few basking areas remained for any reptiles. We removed a lot of blackthorn and re-aligned the fencing to create a rectangular space including space for compost bins. We quickly planted a hedge in this new ‘corner’ with berry-bearing trees and shrubs, which will provide food for birds as well as creating shelter from northerly winds coming down the valley. We also constructed an artificial hibernaculum.
The Artificial Hibernaculum
Our designer hibernaculum illustrates what can be done if you have the space. We started by digging out a shallow depression (around 50cm deep) and then filled this with rubble, stones and roots, making sure there were plenty of nooks and crannies. On top of this we piled more rubble and timber, with some of the logs placed so that they will protrude from the edge of the finished hibernaculum to provide a route in and out. We then added soil, packing it down (but not too firmly) until we reached the final height. The whole dome was then covered in spare turf, and we also added a piece of old sleeper on the surface as a basking area. We aim to keep the grass short, and plant it up with a variety of low-growing wild flowers.