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.
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.
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
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.
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.
An Eastern Brown Snake well hidden in grass
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.
The Hunter River at Singleton 9th June 2007, from the levy bank, 9 hours before the river peaked
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.
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.
Another large Eastern Brown Snake suns itself after being washed from the flooding Hunter River
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.