Rory champion photography


Straw for a pillow: Grass snakes set up home in manure mountain

As a photographer, you often have to abandon traditional notions of dignity and what people around you might be thinking.  In many scenarios of photographing wildlife, doing what you must to get the shot you're after isn't really an issue because most wildlife is shy and retiring, sooner to flee rather than find out what this unfamiliar invader is. Occasionally though wildlife and humans go about their business side by side, neither aware of the other's presence, and you therefore perform your work in sight of the general public. So one day when I was walking round the lane, I was both thrilled and surprised to find a family of grass snakes living within a child's stone's throw from a man washing his car in the driveway of a farmhouse overlooking marshland.

Evidence: snake skins litter this mound of manure

What was most curious was that these snakes were evidently thriving having set up home in a pile of 6-month old manure. Aware that the local landowner was particularly interested in conservation, I wondered whether this was a deliberate ploy to encourage these non-venomous serpents into the area. I'm also aware that my homepage is beginning to look like a shrine to snakes, but I guess promoting a guise of variety would be slightly inaccurate, since my original project photographing the UK's most endangered species includes at least 4 reptiles. So I've spent several sessions standing, sitting, kneeling in amongst the manure, waiting for the snakes to appear. And appear they have done, in abundance too.

A grass snake forages in the manure

Whilst many, particularly the smaller snakes, have fled at the first inkling of my presence, I've managed to get close enough to quite a few for my macro lens. So, I would bike down to the site, and move into position between the two main mounds of manure, so that as the snakes slithered over the mound they are closer to my eye level. That said, it's been tricky to get down close enough to the ground to elevate these snakes in the frame, and several shots are taken from above.

A female grass snake

After a few sessions watching, a pattern of behavior seemed to emerge which I could almost set my watch by. In the warm heat of the late afternoon, the manure mound would come alive as snakes would appear from the thicket and begin their forage around the mounds of manure, poking their heads into various holes in the mound before moving on. I assumed they were looking for food (rodents and the like), although occasionally a snake would slither all the way into a hole in the straw and disappearing altogether out of sight into what I could only imagine was a network of crude tunnels inside the manure mound.

A grass snake coiled up

Several snakes slithered right past me without any hesitation, but most once they were within a few feet of me became hesitant and cautious, and begin would the standard snake practise of sussing out what this new presence was, which would involve the snake sticking out its tongue over and over to gauge my scent. This aspect of detection at least was entirely their prerogative, however I noticed quickly that any sudden movement would see them skip off over the manure back to the safety of the thicket. I spent perhaps 5 sessions at this site, and became used to hopping on my bike, spending just half an hour their and counting perhaps 5-10 snakes in that period. Then one day I visited and as I approached the site I noticed what looked like a large rodent jump off the pile of manure and scurry away into the undergrowth. I thought it maybe just a rat or something similar and thought nothing else of it, before maneuvering into position. Half and hour past and there were no signs of any grass snakes. I waited another 45 minutes and still no sign. Then out of the corner of my eye something skipped into view on the farm track. Sleek-lined with an arched back, I suspected it was a stoat or weasel, and assuming it was returning from where it left off when I scared it away on my arrival, I crouched into position to photograph it as it hopped back onto the manure pile. Sure enough it did, although I was still astonished to be confronted by this little creature no more than 2 feet away from my face. It paused for a moment before realising my presence, then hopped back off and away up the track.

Danger signs: A stoat hunts grass snakes.

My delight, especially having got a few shots away, soon turned to suspicion. Was this the reason why the snakes had been so quiet? I new that stoats were quite aggressive and known to take reptiles when the opportunities arose. Had a stoat single-handedly decimated this small, thriving population of grass snakes? I will keep revisiting this site to find out. In the meantime, here are a few snaps from what I nicknamed Snake Mountain.

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