Here at Beaufort Landscapes we not only specialise in best practice for plant growth and development but it is also our objective to protect and encourage a wide spectrum of garden fauna too. After all a garden that functions best is often one that supports a natural balance and ecosystem.
On a bright and warm day in March the team were busy turning and maintaining a large compost heap in Barnes, West London. To our delight we discovered that it was home to a family of Slow Worms (Angius fragilis), including a number of infants, presumably not long woken from their hibernation period which is usually between October and March. These striking reptiles that are in fact legless lizards find compost heaps an irresistible site for using as nests. Slow-worms are exothermic meaning they do not create their own body temperature and gain warmth from the compost and rotting plants. Compost heaps also provide a plentiful supply of food found in the form of bugs and insects and act as a refuge from predators such as cats, hedgehogs and foxes.
Identifying slow-worms can sometimes be tricky, at first we thought we had fallen across baby snakes. However unlike snakes slow-worms and all lizards for that matter have eyelids and notched tongues. Adults normally measure between 40-45 cm (16-18 inch) from the tip to the tail. Males range from grey to dark brown with a pale to pink underside, and females, in my opinion the more impressive in appearance, are a coppery colour with dark sides and a thin dark strip down the centre of its back. Juvenile slow-worms are gold or silver with black bellies, very thin and are initially around 4cm long. Slow-worms like many species of lizard are also known to detach their tails as a defence mechanism. Regrowth will take place at a slow rate and never to the same length, therefore handling of such animals does require a high level of delicacy and should only be carried out if absolutely necessary i.e. when carefully being covered over.
What to do if you discover a slow-worm
If slow-worms are found on your own land there are a number of simple steps that you can take to ensure their survival and continued well being. As we've seen compost heaps are favoured by slow-worms for setting up habitat and act as a recommended feature to initially encourage them into your garden. Care needs to be taken when turning compost so as to avoid harming the creatures. Gentle turning with a fork of open heaps is best undertaken from mid-March after hibernation period or in May when mating season has completed. All nesting animals benefit greatly from lack of disturbance therefore a system of several compost heaps that are not too efficient and rotated on a cycle of 2-5 years will provide best wildlife cover. If space is an issue in your garden then a single heap that is left alone for as long as possible will best maintain their survival.
In the event that you have spotted a slow worm but do not have a compost heap in your garden then it is possible that it may have taken up residence in an area of thick vegetation, rock crevice or indeed a hole beneath a uncompacted patch of land. We would therefore recommend avoiding any major development work and treading carefully around such areas.
Finally, the golden rule for encouraging many forms of wildlife to take up residence in a garden is to provide a healthy structure of organic matter on the ground surface and refrain from keeping it completely tidy.
Benefits of slow-worms to a garden
Apart from adding further interest to a garden with a chance sighting of these reclusive animals for the whole family to enjoy, slow-worms act as a friend to many of your prized plants due to a diet of slugs and other garden pests.
Slow worm numbers have sadly been in decline across the UK due to a lack of suitable habitat and displacement through construction projects and urbanisation. We hope this article may inspire you to consider your own garden as a potential home for these intriguing native creatures.