For many of us, Saint Patrick is known as the protector of the rolling hills of Ireland. Every year North Americans join in celebrating his legendary story.
The green beer, shamrocks and other verdant regalia common of the current St. Paddy’s Day are actually meant to celebrate the story of St. Patrick. Folklore has it that after 40 days of fasting and wearing a garment of green, he drove the snakes out of Ireland and chased them into the sea.
To this day, the grassy landscapes of Ireland remain free of any snake species. And despite this popular tale, they always have.
According to scientists, there has never been any fossil evidence of snakes found on the island; proving no snake has ever slithered on Irish soil. It is believed snakes were unable to reach these lands due to the Ice Age, which kept Irish territory too cold for snakes to survive.
England, on the other hand, was colonized by three species of snakes: venomous adder, grass snake and smooth snake. This was possible by the land bridge connecting the country to Europe.
Ireland is one of five countries that are snake-free. The others are New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica.
Although many staff and Conservation Volunteers at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) may celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we like to keep our snakes on our lands. In fact, we’re making conservation efforts to ensure they stay.
Snakes are an important part of ecosystems. As middle-order predators, they keep natural environments and food webs working.
There are 25 species of snakes in Canada, including the now-extirpated (locally extinct) timber rattlesnake. Twelve of these 25 snake species are considered endangered by Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. One of these species is the blue racer; a snake exclusive to Peele Island, present on the more than one-kilometre stretch of land protected by NCC on the island.
“NCC’s work to manage non-native invasive plants and plant succession in key areas provides a mosaic of sun and shade to keep the snake species on NCC properties happy,” says Mhairi McFarlane, conservation science manager for NCC’s Ontario Region.
By eradicating most of the non-native common reed from an 800 metre stretch of shoreline on the island, NCC has recreated foraging, basking, nesting and hibernation sites for the blue racer and other snake species such as the eastern foxsnake that are present on Pelee Island.
Snakes can be found on NCC’s many properties across Canada, except on Newfoundland and Labrador. Much like Ireland, Canada’s largest island province is not known to have snakes. That said, in 2010 a pregnant garter snake was found in St. David’s in southwestern Newfoundland. This species, despite being native to other Canadian regions, was considered an introduced species on the island.
For those of you who are like Indiana Jones and are afraid of snakes, you have nothing to fear. A common misconception of snakes and a reason why people develop a fear towards them is their presumed venomous bites. But in Canada, there are only three species of venomous snakes: the endangered Massasauga in Ontario; the western rattlesnake in southern British Columbia, southwestern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan; and the rare night snake in limited areas of southern BC.
It is important to note: snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. Much like any species, they generally will only bite if provoked. Bites from snake species in Canada are few and far between.
But this superficial fear of snakes (also known as ophidiophobia or ophiophobia) is one of the main reasons why many snakes are at risk. In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, snakes face several human-posed risks such as harassment and needless killing.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada is not only working to protect the species on our properties from coast to coast; we are also working to raise awareness about our slithery friends. So on this St. Patrick’s Day, celebrate the Irish saint with your attire; not your mindset. While sporting green, help share the importance of these not-so-scary reptiles.