RAY COLLIER’S HIGHLAND COUNTRY DIARY
Recording of wildlife in the Highlands, including the areas in and around Inverness, has been variable over many years. At one time the records were mainly of birds and plants as there were more recorders for these groups than all the others put together. A decade or so ago butterflies seemed to be the attraction and for that matter still has a devoted following. Dragonflies had an upsurge in interest a few years ago and yet for some reason in the last few years this has waned. The “in group” at the moment is moths with regional records covering all the the Highlands and regular meetings taking place. Other groups have always attracted less attention and one of these is the amphibians and reptiles, The amphibians include the various species of frogs, newts and toads. The reptiles include lizards and snakes.
In the Highlands the snakes are represented only by the adder as there has always been some doubt as to whether the grass snake has ever been recorded this far north. As for the lizards, the common lizard is widespread but there is another lizard that can easily be mistaken for a snake because of its appearance. This is the slow-worm as it is in fact a legless lizard. It is this mistaken identity that often causes its downfall as many people, on thinking it is a snake, simply kill it. They are sleek, shiny, snake like lizards and the adults vary in colour from greyish to light, dark or coppery brown. The females have dark brown flanks and belly with a paler back, sometimes with a dark stripe. They are up to 18 inches long and half of this is tail.
Slugs are the favourite food of slow-worms so they can be beneficial in gardens where they can occasionally be found. They seize the slug by the middle and then swallow it whole. Insects, worms and spiders are their main prey. Interestingly dead food, in other words carrion, is never eaten and even if live prey does not move it is sometimes ignored. Adult slow-worms hibernate for the winter months and they normally go underground. They emerge at the end of March depending on the weather and mate in April and May. Each young slowworm is born in a membranous egg that breaks open within seconds. The young are golden yellow above and black below and about 3 inches long. Their distribution in the Highlands is uncertain but they seem to be scattered along the east coast up into Caithness and down along the Great Glen. Records are few along the west coast. It has always presumed to be scattered on the Western Isles but nobody is certain of this as records vary so much. It may be under-recorded owing to its secretive nature.
Young slow worms as well as the adults have many enemies apart from ourselves who kill them from our ignorance as they do no harm. Hedgehogs, adders, rats and kestrels are but a few of their predators. They are very inconspicuous as they blend in with their surroundings and the camouflage is enhanced because they do not like strong sunshine but like partial or dappled shade. They have one defence mechanism which it shares with the common lizard. If a slow-worm is seized by a predator it can shed its tail and so in many case it can slither away unharmed. The tail will regrow again but never to its original length. You can tell if the tail has been lost at some stage as the end is blunt as opposed to tapering almost to a point.