Okay, so I know this is a totally weird thing to say, but if there is one thing guaranteed to excite me when out for a country walk, it is finding a sheet of corrugated iron lying on the ground.
It is like coming upon a treasure trove, for the chances are there will be fascinating creatures sheltering beneath. The corrugations mean there is space for animals to move and the metal absorbs heat and forms a wonderful waterproof roof. What small beast wouldn’t find this a comfortable and cosy place to be?
Such thoughts were firmly on my mind when I stumbled upon such a sheet of metal by the bankside of a tumbling river. Field voles are perhaps the commonest find under such places, but I had high hopes for slow worms, one of our most unusual and rarely seen creatures.
With anticipation mounting, I firmly gripped a corner of the corrugated iron. One, two, three and up it went, and there they were, two coppery coloured slow worms. If ever there was a misnomer then this is it, for they are neither worms nor particularly slow.
Slow worms can move pretty fast if the inclination takes them. One of them did disappear rather quickly, but the other hung around long enough for me to take a few photographs. I have only ever seen slow worms on a handful of occasions in my life, mostly from lifting corrugated iron or plywood sheets.
I suspect slow worms are more common than we realise, but are seldom seen because they spend most of the day hidden under rocks or in crevices, only coming out at night to feed upon small invertebrates, especially when it is mild and wet.
While they look like snakes, slow worms are in fact legless lizards. Unlike snakes, they have eyelids and can blink. Slow worms can also shed the end of their tail like a lizard, a handy defence mechanism if seized by a predator.
Indeed, one of the slow worms under this piece of corrugated iron was tail-less. Perhaps a buzzard or fox had pounced upon it in the recent past, or the loss may have been the result of fighting with another slow worm. Males often squabble and square up to each other.
There was also a toad under the corrugated iron and a bustling ant nest. These were black garden ants and were engaged in frenetic activity, running this way and that, some carrying their larvae or pupae to safety after being so rudely disturbed. Worker ants feed the developing larvae in the nest on sugars and liquefied insects.
One of nature’s great sights is watching these ants swarm in summer, when the winged males and females suddenly erupt from the nest and take to the sky and mate, darkening the air like a swirling plume of black smoke.