Monty Don would be proud! We’ve managed to turn our garden clippings and kitchen peelings into crumbly, cocoa-coloured compost. I start to give the bin a vigorous stir with a handy stick, turning over the wilted salad leaves, tea bags and coffee grounds I’ve just added. It smells earthy and wholesome, and the stuff in the middle seems warmer than the outer edges. It’s just the sort of place where a canny creature might hibernate. I stop prodding, worried that I might accidentally bash some unsuspecting resident. A cosy leaf pile or compost heap might be just the spot a slow worm would choose to spend the winter, and I’d hate to injure one.
I’ve seen one slither through the long grass in our meadow, but the last time I saw a slow worm wasn’t in the garden, but in Alresford station car park. It was mid-morning in early July, with shoppers passing through and a Mid-Hants Railway engine steaming noisily behind me. An elderly couple stood by the Pay and Display machine, bending to inspect what looked like a bit of old rubber tube on the ground.
“I think it’s a snake”, the man said, leaning closer.
“Don’t get too close, it might bite!” his wife warned.
They hurried off to the Watercress Line, leaving the ‘snake’ to sunbathe on the warm tarmac, where it was in real danger of being run over by an unsuspecting motorist. I crouched down to stare at the sun-worshipper. It stared back, unperturbed. Then it blinked.
“So you’ve got eyelids,” I muttered. “I suppose that means you’re a slow worm.”
The slow worm blinked again in agreement, and flicked its little tongue. It had an endearing face, with no neck to speak of, and its body looked polished in the sunlight. Only about 30 – 40cm long, with sleek grey/brown skin, the slow worm is a reptile, a leg-less lizard, in fact. It controls its body temperature by warming up in the sun, then retreating to the shade to avoid overheating (like Brits on holiday, but without the Ambre Solaire or the cocktails). It’s unlikely to bite you, although its hinged jaws are quite capable of tackling an earthworm or a snail, and it’s particularly partial to those irritating little slugs which have plagued our vegetable patch this year. Tempting as it was, I didn’t bring it home in my hand-bag.
A car park might seem a strange habitat, and seeing one in such an exposed place is certainly rare, but slow worms can be found on waste land and railway embankments, as well as meadows and woodland. I’m told that they’ve been seen in the grounds of St John’s Church in Alresford, and churchyards are valued as havens for wildlife in an urban setting. Hampshire County Council lists no less than 3700 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs), which make up around 9% of the county’s land area. These include copses and ponds, golf courses and heathland, and exist in addition to the perhaps more familiar Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Together these places contribute to Hampshire’s Biodiversity Plan, and help wildlife to coexist with humans.
So what about my slow worm in the station car park? Before I could relocate it to a safer spot, my shadow must have spooked it, and it wriggled off (at some speed!) towards the shelter of a box hedge.
Back at the compost bin, I secure the cover to keep the rain out and the warmth in. It’s the end of October and slow worms will be bedding down for the winter. Perhaps not in the compost, but possibly in an abandoned log pile or among the windblown leaves under the shed. It needs a place where it will be safe from badgers, pheasants and their biggest enemy, the domestic cat (although Charlie, our tabby is so well-fed and lazy, he’s unlikely to bother with a slow worm unless it’s served with gravy). If it does fall foul of a predator, the slow worm at least has a chance to escape by shedding its tail. They are appealing creatures, and wonderful for pest control, so I’m glad to know that they are protected. Even building giant, Taylor Wimpey, was obliged to give way to the slow worm. In 2014 they relocated 350 slow worms to Lynchmere Common so that they could build Maple Park in Liphook. Slow worms have been known to live in the wild for up to 20 years (one at Copenhagen Zoo was still going strong at 50!), so hopefully we will see them in Hampshire for many years to come.
Written by Claire Thurlow