Wednesday, 13 June 2007

#21 Snakes alive

The negative public perception towards snakes is a killer, for both harmless and venomous reptiles.

Yesterday, I was distressed to see a man jump out of his vehicle on a rural road and attack a Red-bellied Black Snake with a role of hose. When the snake was limp, the driver threw it into the paddock to suffer as it died of its injuries.

I explained to the proud owner of the hose, that the snakes had been flushed out of hibernation by flood waters and just needed some warmth before seeking alternate winter accommodation. I feel sure, however, my pleas for a fair go for these displaced native animals fell on deaf ears.

An Eastern Brown Snake sunning itself beside the flooded Hunter River

Hunter Valley and Central Coast NSW residents will be well aware of the devastation and heartbreak caused by a one-in-thirty-year flood, as between 200 and 300 millimetres of rain fell during two days in early June, coupled by fierce winds.

Homes, businesses and farms have been inundated by flood waters destroying lives, property, livelihoods and livestock. In times of hardship, people band together to help each other. But the hidden hardships of our native wildlife during such natural disasters often goes unnoticed.

The trickling drought-stricken Hunter River is transformed into a 14metre-deep torrent as it breaks its bank and covers farmland, 10th June 2007

At this time of year in an area that receives cold winters, snakes are curled up in a safehold. However, it is not cold enough in this area for reptiles to fully hibernate. On warm days snakes will emerge from their hide-out and bask in the sun, and if their body temperature is raised sufficiently, they will occasionally eat. Terrestrial (ground-dwelling) snakes that are common in the Hunter Valley shelter in abandoned burrows and hollow logs, or beneath rocks and surface debris.

Snake habits

The two most commonly encountered snakes in the Hunter Valley are the Red-bellied Black Snake, Pseudechis porphyriacus, and the Eastern Brown Snake, Pseudonaja textilis. Both are venomous, the Eastern Brown being dangerously venomous.

The Red-bellied Black Snake's agitation is obvious by the flattening of the neck region

Regardless of size or venom toxicity, all species avoid confrontations with humans whenever possible and must be trodden on or otherwise harassed before they resort to biting in self-defense. The primary function of venom is to subdue prey, not to attack animals too large to be consumed.

A snake's first mode of defense is camouflage, lying motionless to avoid detection. If disturbed, a snake can flee swiftly, or display defensive behaviour like raising and flattening its head. Most snake bites occur when a person attempts to kill or capture a snake. If a snake is cornered in an enclosed position, or feels threatened, it may attack.

An Eastern Brown Snake well hidden in grass

As semi-dormant snakes are flushed from their winter shelter by rising flood water, they are sluggish and slow to react. If they survive the perils of flood, these cold-blooded animals will warm themselves in sunny positions before seeking shelter for the remainder of the winter. In their sluggish state, they are slow to move away from potential danger, so can become aggressive in order to protect themselves. Eastern Brown Snakes can be particularly quick to strike at this vulnerable time. But snakes are shy by nature, and will avoid human contact.

The Hunter River at Singleton 9th June 2007, from the levy bank, 9 hours before the river peaked

As natural wildlife habitat is cleared or degraded by humans, we are more likely to encounter snakes. Removing rubbish from around your home, especially sheets of iron and overgrown vegetation, will discourage snakes from taking up residence in your yard. Keeping feral mice and rats under control will also discourage snakes.

Snakes and the environment

Despite the common attitude that it is ridiculous to protect snakes, they play a role in functioning ecosystems. When snakes are absent, the biodiversity is suffering.

In natural ecosystems, the presence of top-level carnivores indicates that the herbivores are doing well. The fact that predators are present means that the lower links in the food chain are operating properly.

Another large Eastern Brown Snake suns itself after being washed from the flooding Hunter River

Snakes, in their docile state awakened in winter, are vulnerable to water birds, eagles and hawks, kookaburras and owls, domestic and feral cats and dogs, and of course, humans.

If the unnecessary threat from humans and their pets is eliminated, these magnificent but unpopular reptiles will have a chance to restructure their lives that have been impacted upon by a natural disaster, just as people are similarly attempting to get on with their lives.

A juvenile Eastern Brown Snake that didn't make it

If people find a snake inside their home or workplace, wildlife aid people or NPWS should be able to offer advice as to who to contact to have the snake removed and relocated safely. Rural people who encounter snakes would be wise to give the snake space to move on.

It is not only unnecessarily violent and heartless to kill snakes, but it is illegal. Snakes are protected. If we hold a healthy respect for these animals, along with a commonsense approach, we can live in the same locality without incident. After all, it is we humans who are invading and changing the snakes' environment, not vice versa.


Dion said...

Good post.
My way of respecting snakes is to run as fast as I can away from them! I do try to appreciate their beauty, but I don't stay around for long enough.. especially with the brown snakes.

I hope things get back to normal soon for all of us.. the snakes and the people.

Esperance Blog said...

Well said Gaye, many people seem to have an irrational fear/disgust of all types of reptiles. In spring when the stumpy-tailed lizards become active and attempt to cross roads, many are deliberately driven over and killed. It is so completely unnecessary.


Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Dion,

thanks. Actually, if the snake you encounter is still and not agitated, the best action is to avoid eye contact and back away slowly.

If the snake is moving away from you, standing still is the best option. Sudden movements are a good way to attract the snake's attention.

But I keep my distance too :)


Gaye from the Hunter said...

hello Jack,

oddly enough, since living in a rural area, I have found practically a zero tollerance for snakes.

One would think that if these people living on the land have encountered snakes regularly, as would be the case, they would have a respect for them rather than an irrational fear and hate. Sadly, this is not the case, and I can't see attitudes changing any time soon.


Morrie said...

Nice commentary Gaye.

It may be irrational, but an unplanned encounter with a snake can get my adrenalin running pretty fast. Even encountering a snake skin can be scary if it comes as a surprise.

But there is no excuse for random violence against them.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Morrie, and thanks.

gut reaction with most people upon suddenly seeing a snake is fear, and this is certainly so with me too. I think it is a healthy reaction. Even if I suddenly see something that only 'appears' to be a snake, it initially scares the bejeezus outta me.

I have no 'warm and fuzzy' attitude to snakes, or any wildlife, but respect and an awareness for their right to life and a healthy environment in which to live.

I can imagine that you would see plenty of snakes around your place :)


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Gaye

This is a great posting. Good photos, and even better advice and understanding shown.

I have told my friend David Young ( about your blog, and he is a nutter for a good snake story.



Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Denis,

thanks. It's been great to have the opportunity to see some local snakes that are mostly so well hidden away that I rarely see them, even in the height of summer - except as road kills.

I rather like nature nutters :)

David Young's photography is excellent, and his nature observations interesting - I should (and will) tell him that I am enjoying his postings.


David Young said...

Hi Gaye,
Having been offline for about 6 weeks, I only just caught up with this one. I am proud to take care of 9 snakes - having once had an irrational fear of them. I find them perceptive to intention. Perhaps those who get bitten are often people who display or feel aggression towards the snake. One of my snakes had a mouth infection. As I started to rinse the area with a mild saline solution, the snake held its mouth open to give me a better go at it.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hello David,

thank you for taking the time to comment.

Caring for snakes would be a very interesting pastime. I would like to know a lot more about snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles, and their habits and environmental requirements, and I hope to follow this through.