Ireland is a beautiful country known for its lush green scenery and rich heritage. There are many fascinating sights and cultural activities waiting for tourists, but a herping field trip might not be one of them.
While snakes and other reptiles are common in many other countries throughout Europe and the U.S., Ireland is different.
The Emerald Isle is notably free of snakes, and the history and lore behind the country’s fauna are fascinating. Keep reading to learn more about this topic! This article explores the mythology and science behind Ireland’s snake population (or lack thereof).
Herping enthusiasts needn’t worry, though! I’ll also discuss other reptile species you can see locally, even if snakes are off the table.
The History of Snakes in Ireland
Ireland is an island nation with a diverse geographical makeup. The country may be known for its lush plains, but Ireland also boasts plenty of rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, forests, and bogs.
The country’s diverse topography might have you thinking the place is rife with snakes, lizards, and other reptiles.
However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, you could count Ireland’s native reptile species on one hand, and snakes aren’t among those.
There are no native snake species here, neither today nor at any time in the past. The archaeological data gathered in Ireland up to date contains no snake fossil records.
That said, snakes make repeated appearances in Irish history, particularly in the context of folklore and religion. The snake carried powerful symbolism in the pagan European religions and was often referenced in the Celtic culture.
Look no further than the ferocious Oilliphéist, a winged water serpent in ancient Irish mythology. Serpents were closely associated with water in Celtic folklore, which gave the symbol positive connotations like fertility, healing, rebirth, and wisdom.
Later, with the advent of Christianity, snake symbolism took on a negative connotation. This was partly due to the negative portrayal of serpents in the Bible, but most importantly, due to the association of serpent symbolism with pagan religions.
This cultural shift is most evident in legends associated with St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. As one of these 5th-century legends tells us, St. Patrick was the one who banished all the snakes from Ireland, away from the land and back into the sea.
This removal of snakes from the land is believed to symbolize Ireland’s shift from paganism to Christianity.
Indeed, historians now believe the word “serpent” or “snake” in these legends was used to refer to druids and other pagan practitioners at the time.
Real Reasons Why There Are No Snakes in Ireland
Let’s be honest; it’s highly unlikely for the tales to be true. Simply put, things don’t add up. There are no fossil records of snakes in Ireland, neither before nor after the 5th century A.D. Also, Ireland is not so unique in this regard.
Turns out, there are a few other places on Earth without snakes— Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica. Did these places also undergo mass snake extermination? Probably not.
But these places do have a few things in common— they’re all islands and either close to or in the arctic circle. You know, the place where things get pretty cold. These two facts give us an idea of how the fauna in Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland came to be.
For starters, these northern territories were submerged underwater for much of Earth’s natural history, making them uninhabitable for terrestrial animals.
Keep in mind that snakes evolved roughly 128 million years ago on land. Obviously, terrestrial animals and water don’t mix well.
But that’s not all. Even after the landmass of present-day Ireland emerged from the sea, the territory underwent multiple recurring ice ages, which would kill all cold-blooded animals that made it onto the land. This includes snakes, as well as other reptiles.
One noteworthy ice age happened during the Cenozoic era, roughly 2-3 million years ago, long after snakes first emerged. Beyond repeated glaciation of the northern territories in today’s Europe, the continent had also undergone extensive physical changes.
The last ice age started roughly 100,000 years ago and ended less than 15,000 years ago. By the end of the last ice age, Ireland had already separated from continental Europe.
When the final ice cap melted, Ireland was cut off from the rest of the continent. Even though the country’s climate was warming up again, snakes could no longer make their way onto the island.
The Reptiles of Ireland
Ireland was a harsh, unhospitable place for much of its geological history. The cold weather killed off most animals, especially cold-blooded reptiles.
Yet, against all odds, Ireland still has one native reptile species— the viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara).
There are also a few aquatic reptiles and introduced terrestrial species you may notice in the wild.
Here’s an overview of Ireland’s reptile population:
Viviparous Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
This lizard is found across Northern Europe and parts of Central Asia. Scientists believe this little reptile must have made its way onto the Emerald Island sometime within the last 10,000 years when the last ice age was coming to an end.
It makes sense when you consider this lizard’s extreme cold tolerance. This species is known to hibernate in temperatures as low as 14°F (-10°C).
Viviparous lizards are just 2-2.8 inches long (5-7 cm) and don’t have a complex body pattern or coloration. They can be brown, grey, black, dirty green, or reddish on the back, with dark stripes on the laterals of the body.
The underside is colorful and can be either yellow, orange, green, or blue. They have small heads, stout bodies, and long tails. Since these are terrestrial lizards, they have long, clawed toes without sticky pads.
This highly adaptable lizard occurs throughout Ireland in a variety of natural settings. Viviparous lizards might live in woodlands, grasslands, and mountainous regions. Their diet consists of spiders, moths, mealworms, flies, and other insects.
By the way, they’re called “viviparous” because they give birth to living young instead of laying eggs— a trait that’s very rare in reptiles.
Scientists theorize viviparity is an evolutionary response that helped this reptile thrive in cold environments where reptile eggs would normally die.
Slowworm (Anguis fragilis)
The slowworm is a weird one. This animal is called a “worm” and looks like a tan snake, but it is neither of the two. It’s actually a legless lizard. It’s not native to Ireland, but biologists believe it was introduced in the 1960s.
This species naturally inhabits other western and northern European countries with a maritime or temperate climate, so it thrives in the cool and mild local weather.
The first recorded sightings date back to the early 1970s, and so far, the slowworm is restricted to the country’s west coast. Its preferred habitats include grasslands, meadows, woodland edges, and gardens, where they can hide in burrows or among grasses and rocks.
The slow worm has an average body size of 17.5 inches (44 cm). Unlike other lizards, this species has no limbs, and its body is long, slender, and tapers towards the tail. This body shape has many people mistaking the slowworm for a small snake.
However, unlike snakes, this lizard has a very plump body, stubby tail, and small, smooth scales.
The head shape gives it away, too. Unlike snakes, this lizard shows no visual separation between the head and the neck.
Its eyes have movable eyelids, and the tongue is broad and short. The mouth anatomy is also different. Snakes can open their mouths widely thanks to their loose mandibles. The slowworm, not so much.
If you ever see one of these in Ireland, don’t panic! Slowworms are peaceful and docile around people. It’s highly unlikely for them to bite, even when approached. Their diet consists of snails, slugs, earthworms, and other slow-moving critters. That should tell you enough about their reflexes and bite force.
There are a few sea turtle species in Ireland’s waters. They’re sometimes washed ashore by the waves but don’t travel far onto the land.
You’re most likely to spot these turtles along the coast during nesting season, sometime in June-October or November-March, depending on the species in question.
Here they are, in no particular order:
The pond slider (Trachemys scripta): This is an introduced semiaquatic species and is considered invasive in Ireland. Although native to America, its popularity in the pet trade has led to accidental introductions worldwide.
This turtle is 3.5-14.5 inches (9-37 cm) long and has a dark carapace with yellow streaks. It’s commonly seen in slow-flowing freshwater, especially in the far east and south of the country.
The green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas): The green sea turtle is currently classified as an endangered species on the IUCN red list. Adult specimens can measure up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) and have short, blunt beaks.
Although it’s called a “green” sea turtle, this species comes in various carapace colors, including olive, brown, grey, and even black. The underside is pale yellow or off-white. Juveniles are usually darker in color.
Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea): This right here is considered the largest turtle species in the world. Adult specimens can measure up to 5.11 feet (1.8 meters)! Unlike most other turtles, this species doesn’t have a bony, scaly shell. Its carapace is smooth and leathery. These turtles are mostly black with a pinkish underside.
Atlantic ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii): This is the world’s smallest and rarest of all sea turtle species. Unfortunately, it’s also critically endangered. Adult specimens measure 1.9-2.5 feet (58-75 cm). These turtles don’t have the heart-shaped carapace specific to most aquatic species.
Instead, the shell is almost equal in length and width. Juveniles are entirely purple, while adults are dark greyish green on the back, with a yellowish green to the white underside.
Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata): This species is critically endangered due to unsustainable fishing practices. The name “hawksbill” comes from this turtle’s pointy, curved beak.
The hawksbill also stands out thanks to its colorful appearance. The shell is either pale or amber in color and covered in alternating streaks of black and brown. This is among the few turtle species with fluorescent markings on its back. Adult specimens grow up to 3 feet (0.9 meters) long.
Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta): Loggerhead turtles are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Besides the leatherback turtle, this species is the second largest in the world. It’s also the largest hard-shelled turtle, with adult specimens growing up to 2.3-3 feet (70-95 cm).
The carapace is dirty yellow to reddish brown, while the underside is pale yellow. Loggerhead turtles are distinguishable from other species thanks to their large heads, strong jaws, and prominent eyes.
Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)
The smooth newt is another native species in Ireland, though sightings are rare and often under-recorded. Many people misreport them as lizard sightings, which causes a bit of confusion.
Although the smooth newt looks very similar to exotic lizard species, it actually belongs to the salamander family. Thus, this species is actually an amphibian, not a reptile. But it looks a lot like a reptile, so I thought I’d include it on the list as an extra for herping enthusiasts.
Smooth newts are highly adaptable, occurring in various dry and wet habitats like woodlands, meadows, gardens, marshes, and bogs. On average, they measure 3-4.3 inches (8-11 cm) and look very lizard-like thanks to the small head, short limbs, and long, cylindrical torso and tail.
Unlike lizards, newts have four toes on the front limbs instead of five. Newts also lack the skin scales and claws characteristic of most reptiles.
While lizards have longer, narrower snouts on average, the head of a newt appears blunt and rounded. Male newts might also develop a thin back crest during the mating season.
Most specimens are brown on the back and have yellow to orange bellies with dark spots. Like most newts, this species excretes a poisonous substance from its skin.
It’s highly unlikely for direct skin contact to cause harm, but always remember to wash your hands after interacting with salamanders.
Popular Pet Snakes in Ireland
As you might’ve noticed, there are no native snake species wandering around in Ireland. That being said, it’s possible for accidental introductions to occur in the future, like in the case of the slowworm.
This brings me to my next point— plenty of reptile enthusiasts all over Ireland already keep pet snakes.
Selling, buying, and owning a pet snake is perfectly legal, although releasing the snake in the wild isn’t.
Here are just some of the most popular species you can find in the local pet trade:
- Corn snakes
- Rat snakes
- Hognose snakes
- King snakes
- Bull snakes
- Trinket snakes
- Ball pythons
Many of these species come in dozens of different color morphs, ranging from albino to pink to black and more! The ball python is the best example in this sense, as there are currently thousands of possible color and pattern morphs for this species. Corn snakes are similar, with hundreds of morphs documented.
These popular snakes are nonvenomous and not threatening to humans. That said, a few adventurous herpers might own exotic and dangerous snakes like boa constrictors, cobras, vipers, and rattlesnakes.
Owning such species is currently legal, although the introduction of stricter exotic pet regulations has been a hot topic in the country for a few years now.
Ireland is among the few countries with no native snake species. The legends say that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was the one who banished all the snakes from the land and into the sea.
Scientists hypothesize there were never snakes in Ireland, to begin with, possibly due to the recurring ice ages in Ireland’s geological history.
Either way, Ireland still boasts a few reptile species, including the viviparous lizard, the slow worm, and various sea turtles.
Snakes are also quite popular as pets, and corn snakes, rat snakes, hognoses, and pythons are frequently sold in the local pet trade.