Slow worms are legless lizards that are often misidentified as snakes. Luckily, once you have seen a few slow worms they’re quite easy to identify…
Unlike the snake species found in the UK – grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes – adult slow worms tend to be almost uniformly brown in colour. They’re also quite small and relatively slow-moving in comparison to snakes. Lastly, if you’re able to get close enough you’ll also notice that they blink – something which sets them apart from snakes with their fused eyelids.
When it comes to finding slow worms I have found that there are a number of elements that will help you track them down. First, though, I should mention that they don’t seem to be uniformly distributed across the UK. In Norfolk, where I grew up, I rarely ever saw a slow worm no matter how hard I searched.
In contrast, I have seen many slow worms in southern Britain, with Hampshire and West Sussex being particular hotspots in my searches. Sadly, there’s not a lot you can do about where you live, but there are ways to increase the odds of seeing slow worms no matter where you are…
Whilst slow worms can be found in plenty of different habitats, my most successful searches have taken place on healthland. It seems that the lack of tree cover helps the earth to warm up nicely, while there are plenty of invertebrates for them to eat.
While I find fewer slow worms in grassland, this can still be a habitat worth searching. In my experience areas with rough or unmown grass tend to be more appealing for slow worms, when compared to areas with close-cropped grass such as downland.
Organic Vegetable Gardens
Interestingly, as a gardener I have found more than my fair share of slow worms slithering through the grass on my allotment. This seems odd as my allotment is surrounded by major roads, but perhaps the allotments offer a certain refuge for wildlife. They most certainly draw in invertebrates, which feed on all the juicy crops, so searching through fallow allotments or the overgrown edges of gardens may also be successful. I have even found one in my greenhouse, presumably keeping warm in cooler weather.
Like all reptiles in Britain, winters can be tough for slow worms. Many will slow down their metabolism and hide away until the weather improves. Hunting for slow worms in winter is therefore not likely to end in success. Far better is to go searching for slow worms when the weather improves; the hotter it is, the more active local slow worms are likely to be.
Look Under Objects
Whilst slow worms actively hunt their invertebrate prey, it is quite unusual to find them “out in the open”. More often they’ll either be found resting under logs of corrugated iron, or slithering through long grass where they can’t be seen by passing birds who may try to eat them.
There are two options here then. Firstly, you could walk through long grass, keeping your eyes peeled. All the same, though, you might miss these tiny and very active little lizards. An even easier way to find slow worms is to simply look under logs. Just be sure to roll the log away gently, and to replace it afterwards whether a slow worm is present right now or not. In this way you won’t have destroyed a habitat – and one that might come in handy for a slow worm in the future.
Slow worms can be active in most weather conditions – when the temperature is warm enough. Unlike most British snakes and lizards – who only like dry, sunny weather – slow worms may also hunt in wet weather. This is the perfect opportunity for them, as rain draws out the slugs that make up a large part of the slow worm’s diet. If you’re on the prowl for slow worms, therefore, don’t be deterred by less-than-perfect weather. Sometimes donning your waterproof coat and wellington boots can be a perfect opportunity for slow worm hunting.
Check the Roads
While it is never nice to find a squashed animal in the road, these can act as signs of the local wildlife. In one area of Berkshire in which I lived, I noticed that numerous slow worms were getting run over. A nearby search located a suitable patch of open-access heathland, and sure enough there were dozens of slow worms in residence. Sometimes taking a walk or a cycle ride around your local area, and paying attention to what you find in the road, can be a handy tip for locating slow worm populations.