Worcestershire Turtles and Crawling King Snakes

By Alan Shepherd

In which Worcestershire Reptile and Amphibian Group take over (most of) this newsletter... ...(NOTE views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author - keep the salt handy! Ed)

Red-eared terrapin Trachemys scripta

John Day's brief note (Worcestershire Record no 10) about the terrapin spotted in a pool near Pirton has prompted people to prod me into writing about some of Worcestershire's undesirable aliens, not in this case the hordes of Brummie in-comers nor even the saga of Himalayan balsam but the latest news of some unwanted additions to our county's herpetofauna.

When you're nationally known as a "bloke who knows about snakes and frogs" all sorts of loonies and journalists (not that the two are easily distinguished) tend to be put through to you while you're busily trying to get some work done. Most of these are of the "I've got a frog in my garden and it's frightening the kids" category; some are "They're going to build a housing estate next door to me and the woods are full of great crested newts" but occasionally there is one of genuine interest and concern. Better still, the likes of Mike Averill ring up with reports of Green Frogs found while out spotting dragonflies in inaccessible places. I have already covered the Marsh Frog (Rana ridibunda) colonies near Droitwich and Hallow (the latter recently mistaken for a colony of spotted crakes by orgasmic twitchers!) in Worcestershire Record No. 4 May 1998) and these continue to spread further from their original sites, although not yet quite far enough to become a threat to our native species. There is a whole article about the Green Frog Complex to come - indeed a friend of mine is in the middle of her Ph.D. on the subject - but this time round let us concentrate on the seemingly minor additions to our impoverished County Herpetofauna.

Firstly, Mike Sutton considers some chelonians that may be encountered living `wild` in the UK - I quote:

In March 1999, a WRAG field meeting visited some sites in Redditch; we didn't see any native herpetofauna apart from frog-spawn, but despite the inclement weather, we did see a terrapin. This I was called on to identify, which was difficult despite the loan of Alan's excellent binoculars. I did attempt to get nearer the basking site, entering the thick bushes on the bank to do so but all I found out was that the bushes scratched!

Some days later I returned to the site and saw more than one specimen. All I could do as far as identification was to say that they were probably the common red-eared terrapin (slider) (Trachemys scripta elegans) and most likely to be female as these seem to do better than males. This started me thinking; were they really red-ears or could they be something else?

The red-eared slider is the one that was most commonly imported for the pet trade in great numbers since it was "farmed" in the USA (where it originates) and in Malaysia. Thankfully, the trade into the U.K has been banned due to the large numbers of releases into the wild of adult and sub-adult specimens. Originally, few animals reached a size at which people could not cope with them, but due to the increase in public awareness of their needs, more and more grew beyond the hatchling size (they should be 7.5cms long at the end of their second year) and became a liability. 20-26cms is the usual adult size. Some dealers would accept returns, some kind-hearted chelonian lovers amassed large collections (I have heard of someone fairly local who had over forty!) Many were taken to zoos, who had to start declining extra individuals when all the pools in the reptile house were full and the crocodile/alligator pool had no room for its specified inmates. When this happened, the kind owners would still donate their terrapin to the collection by releasing it in the pool intended for fish/ducks/flamingos, rather than take the unfortunate chelonian home. Some collections decided that the best course of action was to start up an outdoor enclosure for terrapins but one had to increase the number of enclosures, since different species were being brought in! Soon it became impossible to find a home for an unwanted terrapin and they were being released into any stretch of water near their owners' home.

The sound of a plop near river, canal or pond used to signal the presence of a water vole; not any more, the cause is more likely to be a feral terrapin (or a green frog) returning to the water, disturbed by your proximity. And, yes, you are likely to see them in Worcestershire. I received a young male caught in a brook near Murcot. One animal lost when young was re-united with its owner many years later having lived in the Avon in Fladbury; the local canoe club had seen it regularly every year during the interim. Alan Shepherd is aware of two at Porter's Mill and the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust outing up the Avon saw one opposite the Eckington Bridge car park. Are they all red-ears? Do you know the difference?

True, the Red-eared slider was the most commonly imported chelonian but there is a lot of variation, as now more than a dozen subspecies have been recognised. Its range includes Texas, Oklahoma, east Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, north-east Mexico and some of the West Indies. The red area corresponding to where an ear may be found is the main characteristic of this fairly flat, mainly yellow, green and black animal but you can't always see this at a distance. The pattern is of fairly large stripes of yellow on head, legs and shell with the two large red stripes on the neck. They are comparatively hardy; I believe a colony has been kept outdoors at Blackpool Zoo for a number of years, although not breeding (thankfully). This species is sexually dimorphic, the males have much longer claws, which they vibrate in front of the female during courtshipTo my mind, the females are more circular in shell but I could be wrong. The male tail is usually longer and broader than that of a female.

The second terrapin you may encounter is the European Pond Tortoise (Emys orbicularis) (EPT). These come from Europe and may still be living wild (not feral) in Norfolk, as there are fossil records from before the last Ice Age. This is a smaller terrapin, rounder and higher in its shell (carapace) shape when viewed from above, which may grow up to 13-15cms long. The colour is black on a pale yellow on the head and shell but the pattern is much smaller than on a red-ear, almost a fine spotting and the legs are completely black. Never imported in the vast quantities of the red-ear, they are hardier, occurring from North Germany and Poland down to Iberia and the Balkans.

The Iberian, Leprous or Caspian Terrapin (Mauremys leprosa) is the third most likely to be seen. Like the EPT above they were imported as pets before the Red-ears became so common, but are not now usually seen on sale. They are however, the most likely to be seen wild in the `normal` holiday destinations, so I wonder if there may be an increase in individuals smuggled in by would be terrapin keepers. We have seen them during several trips abroad. Their range is smaller than EPT, mainly Iberia and the Balkans including Crete. The carapace tends to be longer, thinner, and definitely flatter than EPT or Red-ears. Colouration is drab; they are mainly grey without much or even any patterning on the carapace, although the legs are fairly similar to EPT, and the neck is striped; similar to a Red-ear but the colours are nothing like so vivid. They have quite an aggressive nature and are likely to bully larger animals, especially with excessive mating attempts.

The three species above are the most likely to be encountered. But there are others. Many will have seen the Mark O`Shea programme on Channel 4 about the Alligator Snapper Turtle (Macroclemys temminicki) but I do not think you will meet one of these. However, the smaller Common Snapper (Chelydra serpentina) has been released in this country. One was caught by an angler in the canal near Rugby in the early 1990s and more recently "the Beast of Swan Pool" in West Bromwich [initially reported as an alligator, then as a hellbender (Cryptobranchus sp.) and next as a mudpuppy (Necturus maculosis)] turned out to be this species. They do not grow as large but specimens up to 47cms have been wild caught weighing about 39kg. They are much more aggressive with a long snake-like neck. Never touch or pick up one with hand in front of the midline between the legs of one side, the beak can reach you (and will!). They are also much more tolerant of cold weather, active at 6 C. I have heard of them being seen moving about under the ice on top of a pond.

Of course any turtle being kept as a `pet` may be released into the wild although the prices charged these days should make any keeper reluctant to dispose of a specimen in this manner. I have recently seen big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) offered for sale in a garden centre and I had never seen one of those before. Likewise, a small pet shop in Blackpool had a Spiny Turtle (Heosemys spinosa) which I cannot ever remember seeing elsewhere. But since turtles are easy to smuggle in hand luggage etc. a holidaymaker could bring something quite unexpected into the country, so be on your guard.

How do you catch a feral chelonian? With difficulty! What do you do with it? Send it to the British Chelonian Group.

The first requirement is to identify favourite basking sites, observe for several days to see where the animals come out to bask and most importantly when. Then work out how to approach the site from the water, because you will never be able to approach them from land before they dive to safety. A boat, canoe or surfboard gently paddled towards the site may allow you to get a long handled net into a useable position, especially if you get there before they come out of the water. If they come out to bask after you have arrived, you are much more likely to make a catch. Remember to have something with a lid to put them in, beak and claws are sharp and buckets can be climbed out of by all but the smallest terrapin. Now, you cannot by law release a captured feral chelonian back into the wild; are you going to keep it, kill it, or pass it on to someone else? Celia and I would be happy to identify any specimen you catch but cannot offer a home to anything that does not fit in with current species kept.

The British Chelonia Group now offers a sanctuary for Red-eared Terrapins at "Secret World" in Somerset, although one of their number did say to me on the telephone that it is a pity people do not leave feral terrapins where they are!!! My diplomacy surprised me… I have approached them for input on this article, but so far have received no reply other than the telephone call to say they were passing on my request to someone else. If you do wish to contact them they are on the web, and I have a few phone numbers if you like to contact me first.

[Reprinted courtesy of Worcestershire Reptile and Amphibian Group].

Red-eared terrapin Trachemys scripta. The grey arrow points to the red, yellow or orange flash behind the eye. There are yellow stripes on the head and neck; shell is green, olive or brown with yellow and black markings. Reachs 30 cm in length. Usually seen basking in the sun.

Alan continues:

WRAG are now aware of 17 terrapins at large in Worcestershire and all are thought to be red-eared sliders. In 2002 we intend to launch a major offensive on the locations of these feral intruders, in association with fellow Amphibian and Reptile Groups. All records will be gratefully received; alan@anguis.fsnet.co.uk or alan@worcswt.cix.co.uk or telephone 01905 754919 (day) 01905 779772 (home). This is also the way you can contact Mike Sutton; I will pass your messages on to him but not your captive turtles!

Even more likely to be the subject of the 'phone call is the "adder in the garden". Nearly always this is a grass snake (Natrix natrix) swimming in the fishpond ("It's not me, it's the missus who's frightened") as men often say) or a slow-worm in the compost heap. Telling them that there are now less than 100 adders in Worcestershire (Sylvia Sheldon 2000-2001) doesn't change their mind and it often takes a personal visit to assess the habitat and pacify the panic-stricken householder. Now, contrary to public opinion and the press, where dogs and children are regularly at risk, adders feed on small mammals and consequently their venom is weak. Many of us now carry a strong anti-histamine and steroid combination instead of worrying about anti-venom serum (After all, have you ever seen a vole weighing more than two stones?). Domestic dogs killed more people in the 1990s than the vicious adder managed to slaughter over the whole 20th century.

So it's interesting when you turn up to a house on a Bromsgrove estate and produce the Field Studies Council ID sheet (with the names carefully blanked out to avoid any prejudice in identification) only to have the householder point to the smooth snake (Coronella austriaica) and say "That's it! It had a white V on its neck and it spread its hood and hissed at me before it swam off!" Old Mr Cynical then has to be diplomatic and try to pacify somebody he would rather strangle but just once or twice there is a genuine challenge.

A phone call from a local free-sheet reporter provoked the usual response of "it's probably a slow-worm but put him through..." but it immediately became clear that just for once it was a bit of a conundrum. A long snake (but aren't they all at least "3 feet long"?) with an orange and white pattern had been spotted in a town garden, and the householders were in so much terror for their lives that they phoned the local weekly paper to tell the world, as you do when faced with any fearsome and unknown reptile.

Setting off with the blue light flashing and siren blaring, I got there just in time to find out that the terrible monster hadn't been seen for two days but it was definitely lurking out there to ambush the grandchildren or eat the pet pooch (a nauseatingly obese, incontinent and malodorous mongrel that would have repulsed even a starving crocodile). Anacondas or spitting cobras aren't gaily coloured but venomous snakes are. It was getting better, would I need my snake-hook, gloves and access to anti-venom? Oh joy! At last something interesting in the UK to apply all my 30 years' hard-earned overseas fieldcraft to!

Well, after two hours of searching there was no sign of the menacing reptile. After a cup of tea, I decided to knock on neighbouring doors and ask if anybody had seen a peculiar snake around. Three doors away I was led to the dustbin in which lay the corpse of a hybrid Milk Snake (Lampropeltis sp.) all of 25cm long. Milk snakes can reach 55cm and so this one was obviously quite young (and now dead). Where it came from remains a mystery but hopefully it was bred in captivity rather than taken from the wild. Nevertheless, there is somebody out there who is at least 40 out of pocket, and the people of a town in south-west Worcestershire can sleep easy in their beds, knowing their pets and children are safe from a deadly reptile, even if they are still threatened by rampaging capybaras and big black cats.

OK, so it wasn't a king snake... but then you've never heard an old bluesman sing "I'm a crawling hybrid milk snake mama and I'm creeping round your door" have you?

References

BEEBEE,T.J.C. & GRIFFITHS, R.A. 2000: Amphibians and Reptiles. Harper Collins, London.
FROGLIFE ADVICE SHEET 8. Exotic reptiles and amphibians in the wild. The two illustrations in the article are adapted from this leaflet.

 

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