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Saturday 17 August 2019

Fleuve Manche may explain absence of snakes in Ireland

The Slow-worm is found in The Burren, Co Clare.
The Slow-worm is found in The Burren, Co Clare.

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

While St Patrick is credited with banishing snakes from Ireland there appears to be no evidence from either fossils or from bones recovered during archaeological digs that snakes ever existed in our green and pleasant land.

Ever since the biblical serpent tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the snake has been reviled in Judeo-Christian belief as the embodiment of evil.

The ridding of snakes from Ireland by the National Apostle is not therefore meant to be taken literally; in the imagery of Patrick banishing serpents, the reptiles are understood to symbolise evil and their banishment symbolises a new, post-pagan beginning for Erin's Green Isle.

While we have no snakes in Ireland we do have the Slow-worm, a snake look-alike. Technically it doesn't qualify as it is a legless lizard rather than a true snake and it is an alien, a recent introduction to The Burren rather than a true Irish native.

It used to be believed that the absence of snakes from Ireland was due to the fact that they are cold-blooded and would therefore have difficulty surviving our winters. The fact that a number of species of snake live quite happily in Scandinavia appears to knock that idea on the head.

It was also believed that the absence of snakes from Ireland was due to the fact that being slow-moving they didn't have enough time to make the journey here from mainland Europe at the end of the last ice age before sea level rose and cut them off. The fact that we have lots of slugs and snails and other slow-moving creatures appears to knock that one on the head too.

Fleuve Manche continues to be one of the pivotal issues in trying to understand where our fauna and flora came from when the ice sheets retreated. Fleuve Manche is the name the French give to a very large ice age river that flowed westwards in the basin of the present English Channel capturing the Thames, Elbe, Rhine and Seine.

It stands to reason that long before the English Channel came into existence, Fleuve Manche was a major obstacle and natural barrier to life forms trying to cross from mainland Europe to Britain and Ireland.

If the post-glacial colonisation of Ireland didn't originate from Britain or mainland Europe it is tempting to question if native Irish life survived here during the last ice age at the extreme southern edges of the ice sheets.

Wexford People

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