As a child, the Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis) was a favourite find on my many bug hunting adventures. I remember the local fields and parks having many slow worms hidden under discarded bark, tin sheets, boards; basically anything that provided shelter. It is a huge shame to see how scarce they appear to be nowadays.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Other than the UK, the slow worm can be found in northern Africa, Europe, Southwest Asia and the Near East. Luckily within the UK it is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means it is an offence for anyone to harm, kill or trade/sell them, and it is generally advised that you do not disturb them, handle them or affect their habitat. Neither slow nor a worm, they can be found anywhere from gardens to parks, fields, heathland, compost heaps, even on the edges of woodland.
When found the slow worm would stay motionless, the drab brown-grey male was easily distinguishable from the gold-bronze female. The female was also recognised by the long dark longitudinal stripes down her sides and back. If you were lucky you would find a female with her small gold and black young. Growing up to 50cm in length it is easy to see why people freak out and scream 'snake', but on closer inspection the differences are obvious. The slow worm has moveable eyelids, and a notched tongue as opposed to a forked one.
DIET, BEHAVIOUR AND REPRODUCTION
I never saw a slow worm hunt or eat, but their worm, slug and snail prey were never far from their hideouts. When handling the slow worms, we were always careful not to agitate them in case they shed their tail (this is a defence mechanism. The discarded tail distracts whilst the animal makes its escape. It is known as caudal autotomy). As I grew older I realised it was better to leave them alone and admire from a distance.
OTHER NOTABLE FACTS
Slow worms are not snakes they are in fact legless lizards. They cannot 'bite', although they may try and grip you with their mouth but this does not hurt and is more of a gentle 'please leave me alone'! A long-lived lizard, the Slow worm can live for up to 30 years in the wild. The oldest captive slow worm recorded a lifespan of around 54 years!
Unfortunately over the years the slow worm has been affected by habitat loss due to the increase in housing development. In a double whammy, the slow worm is also predated by the domestic cats that come with the new construction. Another danger for the slow worms are the slug pellets used by gardeners, which is also one of the reasons for the huge decline in Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) over the last few decades.
The slow worm has two subspecies, Anguis fragilis fragilis and Anguis fragilis colchicus. The former being the subspecies found in the UK. There are only 2 full species in the Anguis genus, the other being the Peloponnese Slow Worm (Anguis cephalonnica).
Please note: The wild specimens handled in the photographs were for educational purposes. We wanted to teach our younger team members the importance of respecting the wildlife around us. All wild specimens were placed exactly where found and were only handled for a short period.