Snakes Alive!

Couleuvre (Western whip snake) Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


I don’t care for snakes but, like many, I am fascinated by them. I’m sure this is something deeply primal. Snakes equal danger but you are rooted to the spot watching them. The latest in a series of snake encounters prompted me to find out more about them.

The two types of snake prevalent down here are Couleuvres (grass snakes) and Vipères (adders). The former are not venomous, the latter are.


I have never seen an adder here, although we have while walking in the Auvergne. Fortunately, the SF was walking in front along a narrow path. He suddenly stopped dead. Coiled up in a sunny spot right in the middle of the path was a sleeping adder. I wasn’t wearing my glasses and would probably have kicked it thinking it was a stone. Giving it a wide berth, we inched past. As my shadow fell across it, the snake shot away into the undergrowth.

According to my book, adders can attain up to 80 centimetres in length and give birth to live young, which are already 15-20 centimetres long.


Grass snakes are very common here. There are two sorts – la couleuvre lisse, which I’ve never seen, and the larger couleuvre à collier. The latter have a yellow band around their necks. Although mostly grey or blackish, at certain times of year they are a brighter green-yellow. They can attain up to two metres in length and lay eggs.

My book says they like living near water and you often see them swimming in streams and rivers. We have very little water around here and yet they live and breed here. They are partial to toads, frogs and water insects. Croaking frogs quickly vanish into the depths when they see one coming.

A colloquial expression, “Avaler des couleuvres” means to accept everything you are told without question. An earlier definition is to swallow insults or put up with a situation without being able to protest. Apparently the origin stems from the fraudulent practice of adding couleuvres to a dish of eels.

Brief encounters

My first encounter with one was when house hunting down here more than 15 years ago. We looked at a mill house, in which a stream – really – ran through the back of a downstairs bedroom. On the French windows a notice read, “Please keep the curtains shut to stop the snakes coming in.” The estate agent politely stood aside as I went out through the front door – to come face to face with an enormous snake. The confrontation lasted only a split second before it whisked off into a hole in the rocks.

That was the biggest one I have seen in the flesh. We didn’t buy that house.

Over the years, we have had less dramatic meetings with them. Most often you see them zigzagging across the road. Sometimes they don’t make it in time. A particularly unlucky one didn’t get out of the way of the hay cutter when Philippe was cutting the field behind us.

We’ve had live encounters, too. A small one got into the kitchen once and had to be escorted out with some difficulty, since it kept slithering under the furniture. Last autumn, we watched a large one shimmying across the roof in the sunshine before sliding off the edge and flopping into my passion flower. Last week, a young couleuvre popped out of a pot of mint by the kitchen door, glided across my foot and disappeared under the rosemary bush.

I am always impressed by the bravery of the small couleuvres. We once hooked one out of the swimming pool filter and gently put it on the surrounding slabs in the sun. It reared up and bared its teeth at us. I saw another one do the same to the cat, who was warily circling it. Alas, if he catches one he usually mortally wounds it and then gets bored. This one was lucky: we picked it up on a stick and flung it into the next door field, much to the cat’s consternation. He spent hours looking for it in the wrong place.

So snakes are part of our way of life down here. I would prefer it if they didn’t coil up in my plant pots but I suppose they do no harm, except to give us the occasional fright.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. We occasionally find garter snakes in our backyard in the summer in New York. They are harmless and we like seeing them because we know they are eating the small rodents that like to eat all our plants (we have given up on planting food because everything gets eaten by the deer, rabbits, squirrels and god knows what else). They are pretty small but it is always a bit startling to find them curled up in the herbs. They are fast little buggers! Anything beyond the garter snake goes on my black list!


    • I don’t think I know what a garter snake looks like but I presume it’s some kind of grass snake. I’ll have to look it up. At least they are doing some good in your garden. But I agree anything large in the snake department is to be avoided.


  2. My husband saw a large grass snake in the garden which made off…he followed it only to desist as it crept up the wall of the barn showing its length to be more than his height.


    • I understand his reticence! Even though they are harmless (they do occasionally bite, I understand) I still have a frisson of fear when I see one. Very deeply rooted. And, of course, they can grow to 2 metres long.


  3. We were staying in a ‘mas’ in the Pyrenees on the Spanish border last year where there is the most amazing swimmingpool using reed beds for filtration and thus looking very natural. Happily swimming along I was frightened out of my wits to come face to face with a snake. Until that point I had never considered the fact that snakes swim. Fortunately the kids did were out of sight at the time or the swimmingpool might have been given a wide berth for the rest of the holidays!


    • That must have been disconcerting! Some neighbours who have a B&B also have one of those pools. I know they get a lot of frogs but I must ask them if they get snakes, too. Don’t know what their B&B guests would think!


  4. The deeply primal thing may be true indeed. As well as the fact that so many people are afraid of snakes.
    I’ve read some research that hypothesizes that snakes have pretty much created us humans.
    What I mean by that is that once our ancestors (who were still apes) had started living in large groups in the savanna, they didn’t fear many predators, even big cats stayed away from them for the most part.
    However snakes didn’t and they became the first and main danger those apes faced, and this maybe partly to prevent snake attacks that sight became our main and most important sense, as well as standing on two feet.


    • I’ve read something similar about the role of snakes in human evolution. Several years ago I watched a TV documentary where they showed that chimpanzees – to which, of course, we are closely related genetically – have a warning sound only for snakes. They only make that sound when a snake is approaching. So for millions of years snakes have been enemies of humans and our ancestors.

      In the 40 years or so I lived in England, I only saw a snake a couple of times – outside the zoo – but living here they are a fact of life. Obviously, the warmer the climate, the more reptiles there are. I’m rather glad I don’t live in Africa!


  5. We regularly see couleuvres swimming across our lakes. We have one who seems to enjoy a regualr afternoon dip. We get adders too but I haven’t seen many, and certainly not around the house. Our chickens see to that. They polish off young snakes with relish!


  6. You’re right, Vanessa, snakes do have some kind of primal fascination. The weirdest snake story I had was from a friend in Amsterdam. She was cooking dinner (on 2nd floor) and out of the corner of her eye saw something black crawling along the outside ledge of her window. It was a boa constrictor that had escaped from someone who kept it as a pet. The police had to come round to catch it, and after some improvised bumbling they managed to catch it and take it to a safer place…


    • People often keep snakes as pets and then find they outgrow their alloted space. Then they just throw them out. Recently, a huge python was found swimming in the Thames – presumably an unwanted pet.


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