SMOOTH snakes are to be re-introduced to Devon after an absence of 50 years.

The project, organised by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust and the RSPB, with support from Natural England, will see smooth snakes from Dorset released at an RSPB nature reserve in East Devon.

The timid and non-venomous smooth snake is the UK’s rarest snake and currently is only found on lowland heaths in Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset.

Historically they were more widespread, but due to habitat loss disappeared from a wide area of southern England.

In Devon the last recorded sightings of smooth snakes were in the 1950s.

With the gradual restoration of heathland over the past two decades, conservationists are now hoping to return the smooth snake to much of its former range, including Devon.

This summer experts from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation will collect ten snakes, under licence, from several well-populated sites in Dorset.

The snakes will be taken to East Devon and released at one of the RSPB’s heathland nature reserves.

The site has been chosen due to the excellent quality of the heath, and is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as Special Area for Conservation and a Special Protection Area for birds.

Nick Moulton from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said: “This is a tremendously exciting project for us as it marks the beginning of what we hope will be the re-establishment of the species to Devon and potentially a huge expansion of range for smooth snakes.

"Historically, much of the former heathland areas have been lost to many land use pressures and the remaining sites are often fragmented and isolated.

"The smooth snake is not very mobile and in many cases cannot naturally re-colonise isolated heathland sites.

"With this re-introduction all we do is give the animals a helping hand to cross these areas.

"The East Devon heaths are in superb condition and very well managed and we believe that the re-introduction has every chance of success.”

The smooth snake is a priority species in the UK and the re-introduction is fully supported and licenced by Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment.

Tom Sunderland, Senior Reserves Officer at Natural England, said: “We are working closely with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and RSPB and are keen to see the success of these efforts to re-establish this nationally scarce species in Devon.

"This is not only good for the snakes, its also great news for heathland.”

Toby Taylor, RSPB site manager in East Devon said: “Since the 1980’s the RSPB has been working hard with many other organisations to restore East Devon’s precious heaths for the benefit of a huge range of wildlife.

"Over the years we’ve seen a resurgence in the numbers of Dartford warblers, nightjars, silver studded blue butterflies and southern damselflies, all important species nationally with close ties to heathland.

"The return of the smooth snake will really complement this; it’s the icing on the cake for us.”

Smooth snake releases will continue every summer for the next few years to establish a healthy self-sustaining population.

Nick Moulton from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation added: “It’s heartening to think that this secretive snake - whose survival was once hanging on a knife-edge - is returning to Devon.

"To see historical landscapes like these heathlands restored and vulnerable wildlife returning is a real success story."