On the trail of the 7-foot snake Mediterranean snake that has made its home in North Wales


“That’s my worst nightmare.”

“Oh my God, I would die.”

“That’s gross.”

Such is the response to sending my family a photograph of me holding a 1.5-metre snake in my arms.

And it’s a common attitude towards snakes. Like most people, my natural response to a long and slithery animal is to shriek and jump as far out of its way as possible.

But there’s a good reason for getting up close and personal with this particular snake, even if holding it is causing my heart to race and my palms to go clammy. I’ve travelled to North Wales to see it because it is an alien invader: an Aesculapian snake, not seen in the UK since before the last Ice Age. And its return to British shores could force authorities to confront some difficult questions about what the future of “British” wildlife looks like.

Aesculapian snakes were released into the wild in North Wales by accident. In the late 1960s the Welsh Mountain Zoo near Colwyn Bay was importing animals from Europe, both for the zoo and the pet trade. At some point (no one is quite sure when) one pregnant Aesculapian snake, or maybe multiple snakes, made a break for freedom.

They survived undetected in the wild for years, breeding and feeding on mice, voles, and small birds, until the current zoo director Nick Jackson caught one slithering across his path one morning and realised it was no grass snake.

Holding my nerve (Photo: Albert Evans / inews)

Researchers from Bangor have been monitoring the population since 2004 trying to work out how many snakes there are and exactly how they are surviving in rainy North Wales, a far remove from their traditional habitats in sunny Spain, France, Italy.

“The fact that they are up here is really fascinating,” says Tom Major, a PhD candidate at Bangor University who is studying the snakes. “It could show that they could live more widely in the British Isles, but that is something we are trying to find out – [how] these snakes are managing to survive up here, do they have any particular strategies?”

He thinks Colwyn Bay is home to a stable population of around 70 adults and 120 juveniles, packed relatively tightly into a range of a few miles in and around the zoo. Much of his work involves finding and tagging more snakes, to build up a better estimate of their population and movements. I’m spending the day shadowing him and the rest of the research team, on a quest to spot some wild snakes.

It might seem strange that snakes can be slithering around a tourist attraction, seemingly unperturbed by human activity. In Britain we are used to native snakes – grass snakes, adders, and smooth snakes – all elusive reptiles that hide in long grass or bury themselves in heathland, away from prying human eyes.

Aesculapian snakes are different. Growing to up to seven feet long, they can just as easily be found hiding in stone walls or garden sheds as woodland floors and hedgerows. One of the snakes the Bangor researchers are tracking even slithers into the attic of a Colwyn Bay home. The residents are happy for the researchers to track it, on the proviso they tell them how it is getting in. “Aesculapian snakes in their native range are quite considered to be more of a woodland species, but they will also inhabit old farm buildings, and they are quite happy to live alongside people,” says Tom.

Aesculapian snakes are non-venomous and largely harmless (Photo: Albert Evans/inews)

We get a taste of their confidence around people shortly afterwards. As I wander around the zoo chatting to Tom about his research, keeping one eye out for something long and scaly, a snake slithers out at us from the undergrowth. He is captured by fellow snake spotter Rebecca Bracegirdle, an undergraduate herpetology student working with Tom on the project. The wriggling snake is indeed an Aesculapian, a male about three years old on the hunt for some food, Rebecca says. It is not tagged, so a few minutes later a microchip is squeezed under its scales, and we welcome snake #207 to the study. Bemused zoo visitors look on, most squeamish, some curious.

But these Aesculapian interlopers might be wise to be more cautious of their human counterparts.

Herpetologists say Aesculapian snakes can slot in well to British eco-systems, as their habitats do not overlap too much with snakes which are native to Britain. And despite media coverage suggesting they devour rats and could crush pets, these non-venomous snakes are mostly harmless. The largest thing they would ever eat is a baby rat, the team say.

But technically, these harmless snakes could be classed as an invasive species. Animals are usually only deemed native unless they are recent arrivals and were here about 10,000 years ago. Because Aesculapian fossils date back much further, a question mark hangs over whether they should be allowed the right to remain.

Currently Aesculapian snakes are classed officially as a “non-native species”. But the Welsh authorities have warned they could be re-labelled as invasive if their range spreads beyond Colwyn Bay, putting them at risk of removal.

“Concerns have been expressed that climate change could lead to an increase in range and the GB Invasive Non-Native Species Secretariat has suggested eradication to be undertaken to remove the risk of it being able to become invasive in future,” Theresa Kudelska, from Natural Resources Wales, told i.

Should the snakes be allowed to stay? (Photo: Albert Evans / inews)

But booting the snakes out of the country would be shortsighted, believes Dr Wolfgang Wüster, a reader at Bangor University and co-ordinator of the Colwyn Bay project. Climate change poses a major threat to Britain’s native snakes, with researchers predicting that both adders and smooth snakes will suffer widespread declines if emissions continue unchecked.

For this reason, we should consider welcoming European reptiles to our shores, says Wolfgang. “I think what we need is a national conversation [about] what do we want the national fauna to look like in 50 years, in 100 years?” he says. “Things are going to die. And if nothing else moves in then we are just going to end up with a poorer fauna than we have already.”

Aesculapian snakes may only be the tip of the iceberg. If climate change means native species struggle, is it right to close the door to migrant species who could thrive in a hotter Britain? Wolfgang thinks not. “The idea that we can preserve a sort of pre-Industrial British fauna and flora – that’s not going to be on the menu if the climate changes as significantly as most predictions now suggest,” he argues.

“We should keep all the bits of our diversity, not just within the national borders of the UK but globally. And if that means shifting things across borders, even from the mainland to an island, then that is something we should think about.”

By the end of my day snake hunting, I’m starting to feel a bit of affection for these little creatures with their tiny heads, darting tongues and speckled scales, especially when we find another baby snake basking under some roofing felt in the grounds of the zoo.

This baby snake’s future may depend on the project. Natural Resources Wales warns that “eradication” could be on the cards if research work stops. Aesculapian snakes arrived here because of humans – their future in the UK lies in our hands as well.

Other alien invaders

Ring necked parakeets have been in London and the South East since the 1970s (Photo: Dave Rushen/SOPA Images/Getty)

Ring necked parakeets: Anyone who has spent time in London will be familiar with the squawking of the parakeets, which have called the capital home since they escaped or were released in the 1970s. Some have called for a cull, concerned they are crowding out native birds in the city.

Yellow-tailed scorpions (Photo: Dikhou – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scorpions: Yes you didn’t read that wrong, there are really scorpions in the UK. The lucky local hosts are residents of the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, where around 15,000 yellow-tailed scorpions have lived since the early 1800s.

Grey squirrels carry a deadly pox that kills red squirrels (Photo: Mark Fletcher/Getty)

Grey squirrels: Grey squirrels were imported into the UK from North America in the Victorian era, and have been a common sight since the 1890s. Their arrival has had a devastating impact on the UK’s native red squirrels, competing with reds for food and also infecting reds with the deadly squirrelpox virus.

During the winter months the stink bug invades homes and outhouses, clustering around window frames (Photo: Wassilios Aswestopoulos/Getty)

‘Stink bug’: In March last year the first ‘stink bug’ sightings were recorded in the UK, sending fear through the hearts of farmers. The Brown marmorated stink bug originates from South East Asia but has invaded the US and parts of Europe in recent decades.  The stink bug gets its name from the unpleasant almond smell it emits as a defense against predators. It also ruins soft fruit crops, and invades homes and outhouses, clustering around window frames.



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