Covert Critters: Your Allies in the Garden. Part 1 - Snakes
As more of us become aware of the advantages of planting indigenous species (or even better locally indigenous) in our gardens, we also need to understand and care for the creatures that join us in our gardens. Many are wrongly perceived as problems or pests and sometimes killed, but armed with a bit of knowledge we learn that most are allies that need to be protected.
These indigenous creatures were here long before we settled in Cape Town and although humans have transformed their habitat, some resilient species have managed to adapt to these changes, and now survive in the urban environment we have created around them. They are still vital part of the food chain and the ecosystems they live in, and also help maintain the health of our gardens - all for free. By allowing them to provide us with this service, and not harming them in any way, we can make a big and positive impact on our environment. In fact, with a few minor changes in how we manage our gardens, we can really improve the habitat for these creatures.
There are many ways of creating a beautiful garden habitat that will attract various useful and spectacular creatures. Bring Nature Back to your Garden (Western Edition) by Charles & Julia Botha, published in 2000 by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) has more information. If you have any questions, you can contact your closest indigenous nursery or City of Cape Town Nature Reserve.
Snakes, our scaly allies, are perhaps the most misunderstood creatures of them all. Snakes have long been feared by humans and killed on sight without discrimination. Without fail, snakes (and all other creatures) perceive humans as a danger, and will try to escape or alternatively freeze in an effort to use its camouflage as protection when they encounter humans. There is no need to kill a snake, and if you leave it alone and remain at an appropriate distance, the snake will move away.
Three of the most common snake species you could come across in Cape Town suburbs are completely harmless to humans and are non-venomous; these are the common slugeater, olive house snake and the mole snake.
Common slugeaters (Duberria lutrix) are shy, slow-moving, inoffensive creatures that never attempt to bite, even when captured. They are also called ‘Tabakrolletjies’ in Afrikaans because of their habit of rolling up into a tight spiral with its head hidden in its coils when feeling threatened. They prefer damp areas and feed exclusively on slugs and snails. This is probably one of the most useful creatures to have in your garden, providing such an amazing service to the avid gardener, which makes it incredibly sad to see this little creature killed simply because of the fact that it is a snake. They are completely harmless to humans and pets.
Olive house snakes (Lamprophophis inornatus) occur in moist habitats near wetlands. They are constrictors, and their diet includes mostly rodents, but also lizards and even other snakes. House snakes have no venom and are totally harmless to humans and pets. They are normally active at night and would only be seen during the day if disturbed from their hiding place.
Mole snakes (Pseudaspis cana) have unfortunately been eradicated from most urban areas within Cape Town. They are the largest of the three snakes, and sometimes misidentified as a Cape cobra. Mole snakes are constrictors, which mean that they have no venom. They live underground in burrows, and feed on moles, rodents and other small animals. The juvenile mole snakes are boldly colored in an effort to imitate more dangerous species, and thereby deter potential predators. They look very different to the uniformly colored adults (which are usually black in the Western Cape). Although these snakes are completely harmless, they will bite in self-defense and because of their size the lacerations can be painful. They are active during the day, and should you be lucky enough to see one of these wonderful creatures; simply remain at an appropriate distance and quietly watch it move off to safety.
Article and Pictures by Suretha & Cliff Dorse