Barred Grass Snake by Tim Melling


Tim writes: I’m sure that many of you will have seen the surprising news announced recently that Britain has a new species of snake; Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica).  Without exception, every media source announced that this was an additional species for Britain, bringing the total to four (Barred Grass Snake, Grass Snake, Smooth Snake, Adder).  For example this piece on the BBC which opens with the line “A new type of snake has been identified in the UK, bringing the total number of species to four.”

But this is wrong.  The Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica) is our only Grass Snake in Britain, and it has been taxonomically split from the Eastern Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) which was previously thought to inhabit Britain.  The Eastern Grass Snake retained the scientific name (Natrix natrix) because Linnaeus first named it from Sweden, where the Eastern species occurs.   Barred Grass Snake (N. helvetica) occurs from the Rhine westwards to the Pyrenees including Britain. Eastern Grass Snake (N. natrix) occurs west of the Rhine and in Scandinavia.  Interestingly a small number of Grass Snakes from southern and southeastern Europe have been found in Britain but these were discounted as certain escapes from the pet trade.  These were of the subspecies Natrix natrix persa which has not quite separated as a full species from the Eastern Grass Snake.  Eastern Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) has not been recorded in Britain, not even as an escaped pet.

The scientific paper on which this is based is here.

I photographed this Barred Grass Snake in Dorset some years back when I assumed it was a plain old Grass Snake.  The scientific name helvetica was the name we used to use for our British subspecies of Grass Snake, which also occurs in parts of Europe.  Its distinguishing features were a barred body and a less prominent yellow collar (compared with Eastern European/Scandinavian Grass Snakes).  The name helvetica is the Latin name for Switzerland, where Barred Grass Snake also occurs.




Yesterday in London in pictures (and some words)


Yesterday I went on a march in London with lots of other people protesting against driven grouse shooting, the badger cull and any chance that fox hunting should be reinstated.  And I said a brief few words and listened to a range of passionate speakers such as Chris Packham, Peter Egan, Natalie Bennett, Dominic Dyer and Will Travers.  It was a good day.

There were lots of familiar faces in the crowd – people who have come to Hen Harrier Day events, people who will be at the Bird Fair next weekend and people who work in nature conservation.  But how many people were there?

Tim Bonner says on Twitter that he was told that there were 380 people at this march – well that’s about as accurate as most Countryside Alliance ‘facts’!  In my article in the Observer today I said thousands, but that was a guess as the piece was written between getting home from Scotland at 930pm on Friday and leaving for London at 930am on Saturday.

I actually counted people leaving Cavendish Square and got a total of 625 – but there were far more than that taking part by the end of the march. In fact, walking down Regent St before we got to Oxford Circus there were lots of people behind me who I certainly hadn’t counted earlier and more joined en route. When we got to Downing Street there were a lot of people I knew who hadn’t been in Cavendish Square at the start, and some had baled out along the way (going shopping?). I notice that there were also people present that I knew who posted on social media that I hadn’t even seen on the day – I think we would have bumped into each other in a crowd of 380, thanks Tim. So it certainly wasn’t 380, and it wasn’t many thousands, but it was at least a thousand and maybe more. Let’s call it over a thousand.

But it was an interesting experience and an inspiring event. I’m pretty sure that there were people in that crowd of over a thousand who think that I am far too reasonable and understanding about all forms of shooting, and there were things said by others that made me wince a bit, but I don’t want a return of Fox hunting, I don’t agree that the Badger cull is necessary or useful in its current form and I do want a ban on driven grouse shooting (and intend to see it happen).  If Tim Bonner had turned up in person then we would all have booed him together!

I talked to a couple who were passing through Cavendish Square on their way to a wedding but who saw the Hen Harrier banners and T-shirts who told me, with delight, about seeing six Hen Harriers on Orkney on their recent holiday.  They knew about grouse shooters killing Hen Harriers and they didn’t like grouse shooting as a result.

And then there was a couple from Yorkshire who had read Inglorious and had been motivated to come to their first Hen Harrier Day in Sheffield a week ago, and from that event had been further motivated to come down to London for the day. That is how it works – spread the word.

Let’s imagine that 2% of the UK population has heard of a Hen Harrier (that may be an overestimate!).  And let’s imagine (though it won’t be true) that half of them hate Hen Harriers and half of them love them. Then go and talk to 1000 people who are unaware – maybe 950 still aren’t interested in the issue but, of the other 50, you can’t tell me that they are going to join the grouse shooters as being covertly in favour of killing Hen Harriers. No, most of them will recruit to the cause of the Hen Harrier, or nature conservation and environmental sustainability, and our numbers will grow.

We have a message of hope, and we have a message that is true – and our numbers will grow, and we will win!

Yesterday felt like an animal welfare/animal rights march and I was a bit nervous that the Hen Harrier message would be swamped – but it wasn’t. On the day, the number of Hen Harrier T-shirts, placards and banners was roughly equal with those who were more focussed on Badgers or Foxes.  And there were plenty of people with a persecuted bird on one side of their banner and a persecuted mammal on the other!

I met one RSPB staff member at the march although, of course, neither the RSPB nor the Wildlife Trusts promoted this march. I can understand that – when I was working for the RSPB I would have wondered whether it would be populated with violent anarchists and maybe there were some (it’s so difficult to tell by looking) but they weren’t being anarchic or violent yesterday and I really do know that there were plenty of RSPB and Wildlife Trust members in that crowd, including committed volunteers and supporters. There were also plenty of former members and supporters and a lot of potential supporters.

My concern about the approach of the mainstream nature conservation organisations is that there is a great danger that they spend more time talking to supporters of Tim Bonner’s nasty Countryside Alliance with whom they share little in common than they do with other animal interest groups where the starting points are different but the journey is more similar.

Would you rather that conservation organisations reached an agreement with the Countryside Alliance or the League Against Cruel Sports? And how likely do you think progress is with each? The answer ought to determine the effort spent in discussion.  Read my article, Our Friends the ‘Antis’?, in the issue of British Wildlife dropping through your door at the end of this week.

Thanks to all the friends, new and existing, with whom I marched, chanted and chatted yesterday.  We should do it again, soon.

And, of course, thanks to the organisers who made it happen and the speakers (and I would say especially Chris Packham) who made it a great day.

And thanks to the police who were lovely, and even clapped the speakers on occasions – was that particularly when we mentioned wildlife crime on grouse moors?







My article in The Observer today


Sunday book review – Waterfalls of Stars by Roseanne Alexander


Reviewed by Ian Carter

This book looked a rather daunting prospect when it first arrived, with its striking cover of a storm-scarred sea and more than 300 pages of fairly small print, uninterrupted by photographs.

It tells the very personal story of the first ten years of an adult life, from a hesitant, uncertain abandonment of normality on the mainland, through to the return a decade later. The book is, primarily, about the author’s response to the challenges of living and working (year-round) with her husband in a place far removed from ‘normal’ civilisation; something not to be underestimated in the days before phones, internet connection or even electricity had reached the island.

It is not a book with many facts and figures, and there are no summaries of research projects or survey results. Yet there is plenty of insight into the wildlife of the island from the day-to-day observations, described with real affection and an enviable talent for capturing the moment. The Grey Seals and breeding seabirds are a recurring theme, the latter hard to escape when living in a house surrounded by seabird burrows. Manx Shearwaters wail incessantly from their nests in the cellar (just feet below the bedroom floorboards) and in poor weather smack into (and occasionally through) the windows. Puffins clatter around on the roof and rogue individuals bring soot, rather than broken glass, into the house.

Whilst the book is often about the routine, even mundane, activities of day-to-day existence, the ten years were not without a few adventures to provide some stark contrasts. There is a near calamitous boat trip or two (or three), the abject misery of dealing with oil spills and their consequences, and even a traumatic encounter with human mortality. There are other contrasts too. The busy summers with their visitors, volunteers and PhD students, followed by the isolation of the long winter when weeks go by with little human contact. The exhilarating, pristine beauty of the island and its wildlife, suddenly wrecked by pollution and tangles of fishing nets. The calm, sunny days with glassy seas, and the frequent storms, pummelling the house and isolating the island, sometimes for days or even weeks on end.

A book of this sort relies almost entirely on the quality and power of the writing and the resulting empathy with the author. It helped that I am fond of islands and intrigued by the idea of this kind of lifestyle. If you are neither of these things then, possibly, this book may not be for you. But it was a book that held my attention throughout and was a real pleasure to read.

Waterfalls of Stars: My ten years of the Island of Skomer by Rosanne Alexander is published by SerenBooks.



Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review and it’s now out in paperback.


Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill