What makes snakes sad

Snakes in the garden

On the lower Neckar, NABU takes care of the rare Aesculapian snake

The rare Aesculapian snake occurs only in three places in Germany. One of them is the south of Hesse, where several hundred specimens live. Together with the Äskulapnatter working group, NABU takes care of the protection of the rare snakes.

Aesculapian snake - Photo: Frank Derer

At the edge of the short-cut meadow, a honey buzzard has discovered an earth wasp nest and dug it up halfway. Some wasps are busily trying to repair the serious damage. Fifty meters further down the slope towards the Neckar, a red-backed shrike sits in a hedge and calls over.

It's a beautiful day at the end of June, a day to lie in the sun. But no trace of the Aesculapian snake. That must be the demonstration effect. After all, warming up is vital for the slender, tawny snakes so that they can reach operating temperature. And the place at the edge of an orchard with old field stone walls is considered a safe place, according to Andreas Quell and Gerhard Eppler from the NABU district association Bergstrasse.

Threatened with extinction
Biologists have marked the animals with painless notches on the abdominal scales and thus were able to count them. Several hundred Aesculapian snakes live here in the southernmost tip of Hesse around Hirschhorn on the Neckar bank and in small valleys that reach north into the Odenwald. Together with the Äskulapnatter working group, NABU takes great care to protect snakes.

The Aesculapian snake can only be found in two other places in Germany, namely isolated in the southern Rheingau around Schlangenbad in the Taunus and on the Danube slopes near Passau as an offshoot of the Austrian population. These three areas are so far apart that an exchange is no longer possible. Only the dice snake is even rarer with us.

Harmless fights
The Aesculapian snake is by far the largest native snake species. However, laypeople who experience the snake in motion often overestimate the length. The animals on the Neckar usually measure around 120 centimeters, adult males usually even one and a half meters. The longest specimen to date was just under 180 centimeters. As a result, Aesculapian snakes are usually twice as long as adders and also larger than the even more common grass snakes.

While the latter species leave their winter quarters in March, the Aesculapian snake does not dare to emerge until late April or early May. There is not much time to lose. The males in particular are quick to mate. If two males meet, they try to push each other to the ground. However, the fights are harmless; the weaker gives in and trudges away.

To lay eggs, the female Aesculapian snake looks for places with slightly moist fermentation heat, for example modern grass, compost heaps in the garden or even heaps of sawdust. In the past, piles of horse manure, which the farmers stored on the edges of their fields, were often used.

The young snakes are already around 30 centimeters long when they hatch. You can hardly see them in their first year of life, because the Aesculapian snakes go into hibernation from October, sometimes even in September. Low-lying mouse tunnels are often used as frost-free winter quarters, and hollow tree stumps as summer quarters, as well as beehives, cellars or garden houses with rotten floors.

Skilled climbers
In its few active summer months, the Aesculapian snake feeds mainly on mice. But birds and lizards are also on the menu. The adder, harmless to humans, is a strangler snake. It slowly sneaks up on its prey, then grabs tightly, wraps the animal around it at lightning speed and suffocates it. Then the prey is devoured head first.

Aesculapian snakes have an excellent hearing - more precisely: they perceive vibrations with their inner ear, because their eardrum and outer ear are missing -, like all snakes, they smell very good and are skilled climbers. Andreas Quell says that the side scales of the Aesculapian snake are so rough that you get caught when you run your hand over them. The snake can climb trees almost vertically and prey in bird nests there. She also likes to roam mice passages and track down young mice in their nests. Such a meal is enough for a few days.

Snake as a follower of culture
“The Aesculapian snake is a very careful snake. When it comes out of cover and crosses an open area, for example a freshly mown meadow, it can first stand up like a cobra to take a look at the situation, ”Andreas Quell observed. On the other hand, the snake seems to feel comfortable around humans. She likes to sunbathe in the gardens of the Neckarorte. An Aesculapian snake had just been found under the loose panels of a garage roof. But even here she does not show up later that day during the search.

Natural enemies of the Aesculapian snake are wild boars, martens and birds of prey, as well as crows and hedgehogs for young animals. But, as is so often the case, their worst enemy is humans. The trade in protected snakes is flourishing, terrarium keepers secretly pay 150 euros per animal. If you approach an Aesculapian snake slowly, it will not flee, but will lie carefully. "The Aesculapian snakes are not caught as much as they are plucked," says Gerhard Eppler, complaining about the illegal activity. Even with around 2000 NABU members in the Bergstrasse district, it is not possible to keep an eye on the known locations of snakes around the clock. After all, there are supervisors available for all partial occurrences on the Hessian and Baden-Württemberg side, who also have the sad task of looking for traffic victims among the Aesculapian snakes on railway lines and roads.

Protective measures are starting
The occurrences in the Hessian-Baden border area are well known. However, they have only been actively protected for a few years. The efforts took a significant boost for the first time in the eighties with the mapping and investigations by Michael Waitzmann, who later founded the Äskulapnatter working group with NABU man Peter Sandmaier, among others. With numerous applications for protection, the regional associations ensured that important sites were designated as nature reserves.

Funding for the creation and implementation of maintenance plans has only been flowing from the nature conservation authorities since 2006. In the years before, NABU and BUND have therefore bought up the first small areas, and NABU Bergstrasse regularly gathers its active members for maintenance operations. Many farmers give up cultivating slopes. "We now have to take on the role of the farmer so that the Aesculapian snake can continue to live," summarizes Andreas Quell. Walls crumble or become overgrown and have to be restored. Meadows and fallow land have to be mowed, and new egg-laying areas have to be created.

Enlightenment is necessary
Another central danger for the Aesculapian snake is still the - unfounded - fear of humans. New residents in particular are afraid and, in case of doubt, kill the animals. Clarification is therefore still needed. The NABU district chairman Gerhard Eppler also wants to start with the youth: "Teachers and students are easy to get excited about the Aesculapian snake."

Helge May

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