ENGLISH grass snakes have moved north of the border and could become a new native species of reptile in Scotland, experts have said.
The non-venomous creatures are thought to have moved north because of recent warm weather, and have been sighted at least three times in recent years.
Though native to England, until now they were not thought to be living in the wild in Scotland. The snakes can grow up to two meters long.
But now a wildlife expert has said he has discovered the snakes in Dumfries and Galloway, which are ‘incontrovertible proof’ the animals have moved north.
As well as the three confirmed sightings, there have been three other possible sightings in the area.
Chris Catherine, a member of the Clyde Amphibian and Reptile Group, and director of the Caledonian Conservation company, said: “This is very exciting because it’s the first incontrovertible proof that grass snakes are present in the wild in Scotland.”
Mr Catherine first began investigating the snakes after spotting one in a pond in Upper Nithsdale in 2010.
He said: “I was balanced on a raft of vegetation searching for great crested newt eggs when I flushed out the grass snake.
“I nearly fell into the water in surprise. I don’t know who got the worse shock, me or the snake.
“This piqued my curiosity, as far as I had read and been told, grass snakes did not occur in the wild in Scotland.”
Describing the animals, he said: “Grass snakes are beautiful and charismatic animals.
“They are the UK’s largest native snake species and, unlike the adder, they are not venomous.”
He continued: “The next step is to gather more records through surveys and from members of the public.
“Grass snakes are at the very edge of their UK range in Scotland, making their conservation particularly important in our country.”
He has released a report to UK reptile experts which catalogues sightings of grass snakes in Scotland.
Dr John Wilkinson, from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation trust, said cold weather in the past had stopped the snakes finding a habitat in Scotland.
But he said the sightings ‘might at least partly be due to the warmer summers we are now getting.’
Dr Chris Gleed-Owen, a Dorset-based reptile expert, said: “We’ve been speculating about this for years, and [Catherine] has done a good forensic job on it.
“I look forward to seeing grass snakes officially recognised as Scotland’s fourth native reptile species. It was only a matter of time before someone found native grass snakes in Scotland.”
The only other native reptiles in Scotland are the adder, slow worm and common lizard.
But John McKinnell, a reptile expert at Scottish Natural Heritage, said: “Though people have seen grass snakes in Scotland recently, there’s no way of knowing if they’re here naturally or as a result of accidental or deliberate releases.
“It’s also possible snakes could have arrived accidentally in, for example, lorry loads of hay or straw.”