It might seem to some people living abroad that Australia is a scary place, a land chock-a-block filled with dangerous animals, and that’s not just the ones we let loose on Canberra. There are lots of things that bite and sting in this country and of course, even in the broad coastal waters that surround it. It’s part of the natural order of the physical world with all the biodiversity and variety of life and habitat which that entails. Steve Irwin made a successful career out of promoting this to the world, wrestling crocodiles for entertainment until taking it all a little too far one day, he booked himself in for that final curtain call from which in this life there is no encore.
Everybody who has heard the song knows of the dangers of finding a Redback spider on a toilet seat at night and mention has been made before about the possibility of finding snakes in the vicinity of a river landscape. Snakes are a particular concern in this area with many homes in Yallambie located in proximity to the Plenty River and seldom a summer goes by when we do not see a snake here or at least hear of one nearby.
The Tiger Snake, (Notechis scutatus) is the snake most commonly found in the City of Banyule. It is a highly venomous species which is found throughout the southern regions of Australia, striped like a tiger olive and brown with seasonal variations occurring in colour. Tigers produce 20 or 30 live young in summer after mating in the spring. We had a Tiger in our rose garden last year and the year before we found one on the front door step at night, but usually the sight of birds lining up in the branches and going crook at something on the ground during the daylight hours is warning enough that there might be a snake about.
Tigers are also notably good climbers and last week with the birds squawking suspiciously at the back of the house again, my wife discovered a large one poking its head out of the hollow in our back oak tree. There is a hole just above head height in this tree below the bee hive and she said she looked up because she had an uncanny feeling that something was watching her. By the time I got out there our Tiger was on the move, apparently intending to settle inside a nest of the large elkhorn fern I had tied into position only the day before. I came armed with a phone camera in one hand and an axe in the other but, remembering that most people get bitten when trying to kill or frighten a snake and also that the species is in actual fact protected in this State, I chose the camera.
So there it is, taken from a small distance while remaining out of harm’s way. Frightening isn’t it? But at the same time strangely beautiful.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night
Usually, if given half a chance, a snake will keep its own counsel and so after I had made a bit of noise around the tree, this particular Tiger was encouraged to be on its way to a destination unknown. Dear reader, maybe it’s in your own Yallambie garden right now? There are certainly a few snakes around this January. Later that same day this video was posted on a Montmorency FB group page, the location reportedly near the Lower Plenty football ground on the Montmorency side of the River.
The Tiger is said to be one of the most poisonous snakes in the world and with its wide distribution, before the development of antivenins, the species was responsible for regular fatalities. Untreated, death in humans will occur in about half of all Tiger snake bites. On average maybe two people still die each year in Australia from Tiger snake bite, usually in places where access to medical aid is not readily available.
The danger of snake attack must have taken a little getting used to in colonial Australia, especially for Irish settlers coming from a country where there are famously no snakes. In the early years of the 19th Century, the Irish gentleman convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes surrounded Vaucluse, the house he built near South Head in Sydney Harbour, with a moat of Irish peat turf in the belief that the soil, coming from a land once blessed by St Patrick, would prevent snakes from crossing over into the property. Hayes had earlier been transported for kidnapping an Irish heiress and forcibly marrying her for her money so it could be argued that the real snake in this story was to be found inside already. Curiously though, it was later claimed in an exercise of wishful thinking that the moat had been highly effective in achieving its goal.
The wife of the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin had her own ideas about snakes and was so concerned by what she saw as the problem on the island that when she came to the Colony in 1839 she personally funded a bounty of a shilling for the head of every snake killed. The scheme brought ridicule and she was persuaded to abandon it when it became clear that the convicts were neglecting their work to pursue Lady Jane’s money for jam. Certainly it didn’t have the effect on the island’s snake population that Lady Jane hoped or which a similar bounty scheme on the Tasmanian Tiger that was introduced at about the same time would bring. That scheme resulted in that particular Tiger’s eventual extinction.
The snake bounty cost Lady Jane £600 in one season but she was not the sort of person to sit at home idly pouring tea as the wife of the Lieutenant Governor when she wanted something done. She purchased 130 acres (53 ha) of land near Hobart Town for a botanical garden where she built a museum of natural history and in 1843 when the Franklins left the Colony, she handed over 400 acres (162 ha) for a university. Two years later, Sir John Franklin was named the commander of the infamous expedition that, in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage, became trapped in the ice where it descended into madness and destruction. Lady Jane never accepted the death of her husband and for decades after the Admiralty had officially given up hope of finding survivors, personally funded multiple search expeditions into the Arctic. On one occasion she travelled to Out Stack, the northern most part of the Shetland Islands of Scotland and the north most part of the British Isles just to get as close as she possibly could to her missing husband. Not surprisingly she found Out Stack uninhabited by people, missing expeditioners, and snakes.
Lady Jane never fully realized some of her ambitions. Her museum of natural history was converted into an apple store after her departure from Van Diemen’s Land and her husband’s missing polar exploring ships were not found until this century. As for ridding Tasmania of snakes, that barmy idea was never going to get anywhere and had about as much legs as a snake. The reality is, snakes do play an important middle-order predator link in the chain of our ecosystem and they help keep the numbers of introduced pests like rats and mice under control. That’s why in most Australian states, snakes and other reptiles are protected under the Nature Conservation Act of 1992 and to kill and injure or take one from the wild may incur a fine up to $7,500, or even a jail sentence.
So should you ever experience that creeping feeling in the garden that something is watching you with its cold, reptilian stare, please don’t panic. Remember that the watcher like most other things in this world has a place and its own reason for being. The danger of the snake is real but there is beauty also, a metaphor for life itself really.