While much of The Wrekin’s industrial past is now cloaked in a veil of greenery, the landscape-shaping influence of the human hand continues to provide many plants, animals and insects with the right conditions they need to thrive. From the ancient lowland heath atop the hill itself to the quarries beneath The Ercall, or the old reservoirs beside the Forest Glen, these manmade features are, for some creatures, as important as the surrounding woodlands. This is certainly true of one group of animals that call the area home…
The UK is home to six native reptiles, at least three of which are known to inhabit the Wrekin Forest. Among the most common and widespread, Common Lizard can be found wherever open spaces with a sunny aspect exist. The heathland on The Wrekin’s hilltop is just one such location, its dense network of heather and bilberry stands providing the perfect getaway from the drier, more exposed locations where lizards like to bask. During the breeding season both sexes engage in this sun worshipping activity but, as spring gives way to summer, it is more often the preserve of females, which give birth to live young in July and August. Lizards tend to move very quickly when disturbed (hence the need for close cover) and this is a good way to separate them from much slower moving but superficially similar newt species (which also have shorter ‘fingers’ and ‘toes’).
Another Wrekin reptile often subject to cases of mistaken identity is the Slow Worm, a deceptively named long, slender legless lizard that is regularly confused with a snake. Despite its shiny scales and considerable length (adults generally measure around 35-40cm), the Slow Worm has a plainer appearance with a blunter tail and head that is indistinct from its body. While relatively widespread, slow worms are often elusive in character, skulking beneath ground level objects or remaining hidden within dense vegetation. Spring is a time when they become more gregarious, however, emerging in the early morning and late evening to bask in exposed spots as they bring themselves into breeding condition. If you are able to gain a closer look (and Slow Worms can be particularly obliging in this respect), you may notice their eyelids and flat, forked tongues, which also help to distinguish them from snakes, speaking of which…
At over one metre, the Grass Snake is the UK’s largest native reptile. Long, slender and a distinctive grey-green in colour, this species has a close association with ponds and reservoirs — hunting amphibians, fish and the occasional nestling bird. Where it exists closeby, Grass snakes will also inhabit rough ground and pasture. Here, amid rotting vegetation, females lay eggs in clutches of up to forty where they remain incubated until late summer, when their hatchlings (which resemble miniature adult snakes) emerge. While you may imagine a snake to be a rather fearsome creature when cornered, Grass Snakes are anything but and will even feign death to avoid capture. If you should feel tempted to handle one — and we sincerely hope you will not — beware, for they are able to emit a foul smelling liquid… from their anal vent. You have been warned!
Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara): scaly-skin (which is occasionally shed) with variable colouration ranging from green to black; males often have flecking on their backs (known as the dorsal side) and brightly coloured undersides (the ventral side); females are often stripier above and plainer below. Adults are typically 13-15cm in length. Females give birth to live young, hence the alternative name ‘Viviparous’ Lizard. Feed on insects and spiders, which are typically shaken and then swallowed. Overwinter communally among rocks and dead wood.
NB. Common Lizards are protected by law in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis): long, legless lizard with shiny scales that give a metallic appearance; the dorsal sides and flanks of males are more uniformly coloured (ranging from grey to brick red), while females are deeper brown with flecked or striped flanks and, very often, a black stripe running along their back. Feed on slugs, snails and similarly slow moving prey. Tail can be shed to evade predators.
Grass Snake (Natrix natrix): largest UK reptile and our only egg-laying snake. Non-venomous. Grey-green colour with distinctive yellow-white and black collar and black bars on the flanks — lacks zigzag markings of adder (which are not present in the Wrekin Forest). Young snakes can appear much darker before sloughing their first skins. Females grow longer than males but generally have a smaller tail. Eye has a round rather than split pupil.
As previously mentioned, the expansive heathland atop The Wrekin is an excellent place to begin looking for Lizards but it is certainly not the only place of note in the forest area. Brownfield sites like The Ercall Quarries contain a similar range of closely linked open space and cover, with bare rock providing just the sort of suntrap required for good basking. Slow Worms and Grass Snakes also appreciate rough grassland, too, and Maddocks Hill Quarry is another location worth scanning for their distinctive profiles. Having said that, wooded areas are a favoured area, too, and both species have been recorded in Limekiln Woods (where several old reservoirs that once supplied the good folk of Wellington with drinking water are also located).