How to spot Britain's elusive reptiles

How to spot Britain's elusive reptiles

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Although many people would be hard-pressed to name them all, Britain is home to almost a dozen species of reptile. However, of these, only around half – specifically, three types of snake and three species of lizard – have been living in this country since the last ice age, while naturalisation has added the rest. In this guide, we give you some handy hints and tips on appearance and habitat to help you spot some of our elusive indigenous reptiles out in the wild.


Grass snake: Common throughout England and Wales, they are most often seen near water in heathland, open meadows and wooded areas. They also swim in rivers, ponds and marshes. These snakes are capable of reaching lengths of well over a metre and are recognisable by the colour of their skin, which ranges from grey-green to dark olive. They have black bars down the side of their body, and a yellow and black collar around their neck.

Smooth snake: Unless you're both extremely fortunate and eagle-eyed, the odds are stacked against you spotting a smooth snake. They are incredibly rare in England and are only found in the heathlands of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. Even if you're in one of these locations there's a good chance you won't see a smooth snake, as they hide under logs, stones and other debris.

Adder: These stocky snakes grow up to 70 cm in length and are widely distributed across the British mainland. Their specific habitats include heathland, moors and meadows, while they can also be found on road and rail embankments, and – very rarely – in gardens. Males are grey with black zig-zag stripes, while females are light brown with a dark brown zig-zag pattern.


Common lizard: As the name suggests, this is Britain's most common lizard. Its habitat ranges from ditches and hedgerows to heaths and woods, and even gardens. Common lizards can often be found hibernating underneath logs or stones. They measure around 15 cm from nose to tail and have a variety of colours, from shades of brown to yellow, red, green and black. Their backs and sides are adorned with differing patterns of spots and stripes.

Slow worm: This legless lizard is often mistaken for a snake. It grows up to 40 cm and is generally grey/brown in colour with shiny scales. Females have dark sides and a large black stripe on their back, while males sometimes have blue spots. Very common throughout mainland Britain, the slow worm can typically be found in moist, grassy, scrubby areas – including wasteland, open woodland and wild gardens. They're most likely to be hiding under objects or in compost heaps. 

Sand lizard: Head to the sandy heathlands of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey or the sand dunes of the Mersey Coast for any chance of seeing this lizard, which is very rare in England. It lives in areas of mature vegetation, which it uses to provide cover. A stocky lizard, it can measure up to 20 cm from nose to tail and is brownish in colour, although the males often have vivid green sides during breeding season.

Image from: Joop Zandbergen,