Dorset Wildlife

Slow Worms

On the top edge of our allotment, between a grassy path and a sprawling patch of Russian Comfrey, lies a sheet of old corrugated iron. The corrugated iron was already there when we took on the allotment some years ago. It was half buried under a mound of rubble, just waiting to be pulled out and relocated to a new sunny position. We wasted no time in doing this. If there were Slow Worms anywhere on our plot, they’d soon find it.

Slow-worms (Anguis fragilis) – sometimes known as blindworms – are neither slow, nor are they worms. They look like small snakes, but are in fact lizards with no legs. Like all reptiles, slow worms are cold blooded, which means they can only regulate their body temperature by lying in the sun to heat up, or crawling into the shade to cool down.

Although completely harmless to humans, slow-worms are wonderful predators of slugs and other garden pests, so it is well worth providing a refugium (a piece of material which catches the sun to heat up, and retains warmth even when it clouds over) somewhere on your plot. This doesn’t have to be a sheet of corrugated iron; a piece of old carpet would do just as well, as would slate, stone, or a plank of old wood. So long as it is placed in a position where the sun can easily warm it up, and with dense vegetation nearby to give the slow-worms cover, pretty much any of these materials will do. Compost heaps are also key habitats; providing both warmth, in the form of decaying vegetation, as well as a plentiful supply of slugs, earthworms, and other invertebrates.

Six years on, a thriving population now enjoys the benefits of our refugium, and last year we found baby slow worms beneath it. Slow worms are ovoviviparous, meaning the eggs hatch out as the female lays them, or just moments later. The young are delightful – around 6cm in length and perfect miniature versions of the adults which can, apparently, live for up to 30 years in the wild, and even longer in captivity where there are of course no predators. The record for longevity is held by a male that lived at Copenhagen Zoo from 1892 until 1946. Slow worms are a protected species in Britain (they are absent from Ireland) under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

by Brigit Strawbridge
http://beestrawbridge.blogspot.com
Twitter: @B_Strawbridge

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