Saturday, 3 August 2013

The snake's tale

Or tail, to be precise. I nipped out into the sunshine yesterday and found myself eyeballing a plump and contented-looking grass snake just outside the door. Content, that is, until it realised that a potential predator had both seen it and made a startled noise ('Ooooh!'), at which point it froze.

As so often at the vital moment, I didn't have my camera. I debated about waiting for Penny to appear, and neither of us moved for thirty seconds, then my nerve cracked first and I sped back indoors to get the Canon Ixus. As I expected, the snake was halfway into the safety of a hole in the paving when I got back.

I managed this glimpse of its tail though, which I was sorely tempted to pull, but snakes have a deterrent effect on such antics. But I know where it lives and hope to see it again, a handsome and harmless creature about 2ft 6ins long to add to the slow-worms, toads and frogs which Penny and I uncovered while digging a flowerbed last month.

The only one of the UK's four snakes to watch out for is the adder or viper which I do not want to have in our garden because it is poisonous. Update: sorry, venomous, not poisonous. See correction from the lovely North York Moors in Comments. The chances are slim, because they generally like to bask in heathland rather than on patios or lawns.

Snakes used to be called 'worms' in Biblical and mediaeval English and the same word was used for caterpillars, of which we currently have a plague. Look at these Large/Small or Green-veined White ones on our Brussels Sprouts. Do we opt for nature conservation against yummy Christmas veg? We do not.

Meanwhile, an epic drama is being played out in the caterpillar world here as our Cinnabar larvae face the decision: do we stay on the Wainwright's solitary and now almost wholly gobbled ragwort plant and make our cocoons there, or do we strike out like English colonists and explorers in ages gone, and see if we can find another source of food?

Here, above and below, are two of the latter, pioneering type. I hope, without much optimism, that they will not end up like Kipling's lost venturers in the Song of the Dead:

We were dreamers, dreaming greatly, in the man-stifled town;
We yearned beyond the sky-line where the strange roads go down.
Came the Whisper, came the Vision, came the Power with the Need,
Till the Soul that is not man’s soul was lent us to lead.
As the deer breaks—as the steer breaks—from the herd where they graze,
In the faith of little children we went on our ways.
Then the wood failed—then the food failed—then the last water dried—
In the faith of little children we lay down and died.

On the sand-drift—on the veldt-side—in the fern-scrub we lay,
That our sons might follow after by the bones on the way.
Follow after—follow after! We have watered the root,
And the bud has come to blossom that ripens for fruit!
Follow after—we are waiting, by the trails that we lost,
For the sounds of many footsteps, for the tread of a host.
Follow after—follow after—for the harvest is sown:
By the bones about the wayside ye shall come to your own! 

W.Heath Robinson illustration for the poem

Rousing Imperial stuff but maybe bad advice for caterpillars. Back to earth with two ladybirds, one a black example of the American invader, the Harlequin, and the other a traditional red native Seven-spot whose future may be Harlequin-threatened (check out the Ladybird Survey website).  More from the moth trap tomorrow.


Countryside Tales said...

It is perhaps the presence of frogs and toads that explains the grass snake's choice of your garden as abode. Fantastic creatures but incredibly shy as I'm sure you know, so you did well to get the tail shot. I love Kipling- we're off to Bateman's in a couple of weeks. I haven't been for years so am really looking forward to it.

MartinWainwright said...

Have a good visit - I love his stuff and the story of his life and his changing opinions is fascinating too. I've never been to Bateman's. Now we're down south, we'll put that right. All v best M


Hi,living on the north yorkshire moors i come across quite a few adders,please don't forget that they are not poisonous but they are venemous!poison suggests ingestion!
hope that clarifies things a bit.
ps 127 large yellow underwing in my garden actinic on 1st aug.G.F.

MartinWainwright said...

Thanks very much and apologies for the mistake - I have learned something; I never knew the difference. 'm updating on the blog. Good luck with your yellow underwings - I don't envy you but I'm glad they're flourishing.

The North York Moors! Paradise. I guess the heather will be purpling now

All warm wishes