Added 11 February 2002. Last updated 13 July 2006: updated Photography section.

European Herps

Conservation and Captivity


European herps have been somewhat neglected within the herpetocultural hobby, at least within the UK and North America. German, Dutch and Spanish enthusiasts have shown more wisdom and have been breeding some of the European species for some years. Of course, it helps that they are closer to, or even live among, some of the animals, but distance from creatures is no excuse: after all, how many of us have lived among the bearded dragons, leopard geckos, corn snakes or green iguanas that we keep?

Let me make it clear from the outset that the last thing I want people to do is rush out into the wilds of Europe and collect native herps, or trample the countryside in droves looking for them. Instead I want to outline some suggestions whereby we can enjoy European herptiles and at the same time contribute to their future.


Photography with animals to me is like hunting but without the blood or guilt of killing something needlessly. You manouvre yourself carefully into position, line up a shot and squeeze the trigger..... The animal lives on in the wild, but also hopefully in the photograph that you just took of it.

If you are visiting Europe or any of the E Atlantic islands (eg Canaries) then you may not even need to go far to take photographs. My own experience of visiting the Canaries is that Gallotia lizards are actually quite widespread and can even be found in towns on building sites or in parks or tropical gardens during the day, while Tarentola wall geckos may turn up on the outside walls of your apartment at night. Frogs may turn up in a nearby pond. You do need to be ready with a camera, however, especially with diurnal (day-active) animals that rarely allow you the luxury of going off to collect and set up your equipment while they freeze in a particular pleasing pose.

For the rarer or more reclusive species there is no getting away from the necessity of an excursion into the countryside. A little thoughtfulness and consideration is called for when you do: remember the Country Code or your national equivalent and close gates behind you, don't trample crops, don't leave litter or do any of the other things that would give local people a poor impression of you.

There are a few useful pointers when out looking for herps to photograph. Firstly, contrary to the popular image, most reptiles and certainly all amphibians shun the heat when it rises above a certain level. Therefore, if you are visiting, for example, a Greek island or somewhere in the interior of Spain in summer, you will not find much out and about at midday. You are much more likely to catch lizards and snakes basking earlier in the morning or in late afternoon. In fact spring or early autumn visits may offer you greater opportunities of catching these animals in the open. Frogs and newts tend to be more nocturnal but may be spotted during certain early or late hours in the day or else during or after rainfall. A bit of forward planning is called for, depending on the time of year, the location and what you hope to see.

Secondly, where to look. Many lizards and snakes seem to find their homes around stone walls which are quite prevalent in the Mediterranean and E Atlantic islands. If you close up stealthily on such a construction you may be rewarded with the sight of a basking or resting animal. Tortoises may be heard moving slowly through the undergrowth and can be tracked by the sound of their movements. Turtles are obviously normally found in or around ponds, as are newts and frogs. Turning over stones and logs may reveal any herp, but especially snakes, skinks or amphibians, or even the amphisbaenian Blanus cinereus after rainfall. If you do move or rearrange any part of the landscape in your search, please make sure you put it back as it was: animals tend to dislike disturbance or the removal of a favoured damp spot or rock. Destructive and irresponsible practices are bad for them, bad for the countryside and bad for the rest of us.

When it comes to equipment there are a few items which seem to be paramount. Firstly, there is no getting away from the fact that to photograph reptiles and amphibians, or invertebrates, you need a decent camera - a disposable instamatic doesn't really cut it. Either an SLR or a good digital camera is necessary. On top of that you will also need a good zoom lens, preferably one that does up to 200 or 300mm, and to keep the whole thing steady, an adjustable tripod. Needless to say, walking around with this lot banging against your back on a warm day can be quite tiring, so again plan accordingly and use a decent backpack or sack. Don't forget to take bottled water with you, put on suntan lotion before you go and if you are going into a remote area, let somebody know where you are going. Even taking a mobile phone may be a sensible precaution if you know yours will work outside of your native country.

WARNING: since the end of the Cold War, some parts of Europe have unfortunately become more, not less, potentially hazardous to the traveller. Authoritarianism and arbitrary rule are an issue in some countries, and the rule of law may be less than perfectly applied in others. In certain countries, including liberal democracies, terrorism may be a potential danger. Officials in some countries may be suspicious of people with cameras, even if they carry a field guide in their rucksacks. As a rule field herpers and photographers are safe within EC countries, although this is by no means an iron cast law, as the recent case of the plane-spotters in Greece illustrates. Check local conditions (including politics and current affairs) before you book your journey and again before you travel.

Keeping and breeding European herps

This is a more controversial area but one I think is valid for people who are serious about herptiles and invertebrates. Of course there will always be those who are opposed to the keeping of any herps or indeed any creatures at all in captivity, although their case seems to be primarily based on sentiment rather than hard science. Furthermore the claim by certain animal rights groups that reptiles in captivity are a health hazard due to salmonellosis is extremely flimsy and based primarily on arguments by Clifford Warwick, a man who has no medical, veterinary or independently-examined science qualifications at all, other than awards given to him by the Institute of Biology which are valid only as long as he pays his membership fees. The truth is that if sensible hygiene precautions are observed and young children's direct contact with reptiles kept to a bare minimum, then there is about as much risk of contracting disease from a lizard or snake as there is from a cat or dog.

Having said that, I must emphasise that the last thing I would want to see is people wandering around the countryside picking up animals and taking them home. There are several good reasons for this. Firstly, many of the native species are protected by law. This is not least because of overcollecting in the past and threats to their habitat (overdevelopment and other problems) in the present. Secondly, some of the European herps are not easy to keep for one reason or another. For example, the beautiful Leopard Snake Elaphe situla has a reputation for being delicate in captivity, while some of the other ratsnakes and colubrids are downright mean and aggressive.

What is desirable is the captive breeding and observation of European herps with a view to creating a self-sufficient pool of animals so that no more need be taken from the wild than is strictly necessary to maintain fresh bloodlines. Not only does this reduce the demands made on wild populations, but it provides one form of insurance against a species becoming extinct. An example I have used elsewhere on this site is that of the axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum, which is severely endangered in its original wild habitat, the disappearing subterranean lakes of Mexico City, but which is thriving in captivity around the world. This is not to say that we should allow native species to become extinct - far from it. Nor should totally unsuitable species be kept, a prime example being marine turtles whose captivity can only be justified by the most extensive and well-equipped facilities. Furthermore, if you already have a pond full of frogs or newts, or a colony of wall lizards in your back garden, it is obviously better to leave them there where they can be watched naturally and continue in a well-established pattern of life rather than round them up and put them into a tank where it will be difficult to recreate their natural conditions, if at all possible.

Nevertheless there are some herps which do well in captivity, contrary to the claims of the animal rights minority, and it is justifiable to keep them for pleasure as much as anything if it is done responsibly. Another point is that some species can be kept outdoors in suitable accommodation. Even the UK or Ireland, with their damp and temperate climates, can sustain ponds with amphibians or modified enclosures for some reptiles. In central Europe there is usually more sunshine during the summer, while further south the heat of much of the year makes keeping animals indoors unnecessary. Chris Mattison, Marc Staniszewski and Frank Indiviglio have all shown how outdoor enclosures can be built from seed frames or other adapted equipment.

As things stand at the moment, it is better to purchase animals that have been bred in captivity. Dutch, German and British breeders have all had some success with this, especially the Dutch and Germans, and so there are animals available. A word of warning, however: if you seriously plan to breed your herps, make sure you buy unrelated males and females. It will pay to discuss the origin of the animal you are buying with the person you are buying from. Try to buy from reputable people: word of mouth within the herpetological community is often a good if rough guide. Keeping records of breeding and what to record is worth a whole page of notes in itself, but you should be able to tell from your records which animal begat which.

The other thing to be mindful of is that some of the European animals are easier than others, both to care for and to breed in captivity. Fire salamanders Salamandra salamandra, Eyed Lizards Lacerta lepida and Triturus newts are examples of herps that have all been successfully kept and bred in captivity over some years. On the other hand (I may be wrong) not much seems to have been done with the non-Elaphe colubrid snakes, the vipers or the Mauremys or Emys turtles, and I have already mentioned the challenging nature of some other European snakes. It is probably best to start with species that do not have a reputation for being difficult and for which information can be easily found, most notably their husbandry.


This is a major area of concern for all who truly love cold-blooded terrestrial vertebrates (and invertebrates, about which we are perhaps less squeamish than some people). Although I believe keeping captive or pet animals is a legitimate human activity, we need to be equally careful to preserve their numbers in the wild.

I would not classify myself as an eco-warrior, nor do I vote Green. Furthermore I think that a lot of what passes for "conservation" in some popular magazines smacks more of politics than strict science. Nevertheless every member of society should act in a responsible manner, not least to preserve our natural heritage for generations to come. If that sounds grandiose, remember that being ecologically responsible doesn't start or even end with sitting in a rubber dinghy in front of an oil tanker. There are a number of small things that most of us can do to protect the environment, such as recycling cardboard, paper and glass, not dumping our litter, reusing or refusing plastic carrier bags, and being careful what chemicals or poisons we put on our gardens.

Having said that, there is a place for politics, at least at the local level. If you are the sort of person who works well in the political sphere, keep an eye on such things as proposed local developments and their possible impact on the local wildlife. Of course there are people who have a knee-jerk reaction to any proposed development regardless of human benefits, just as there are others who will agree to anything in the name of "progress", but if we are to be people of integrity then we need to weigh up the pros and cons, and to get our facts right, before jumping in. An example of local politics and conservation is finding out where the local ponds are, which are homes to which creatures, and then checking to see if anything or anyone is likely to affect them in the near future. In the UK loss of ponds has been heavy in the past few decades with a culminative effect on British amphibians: obviously as herpophiles we need to at least point out the effects of this. This is where local conservation or nature societies can help, and in turn may be glad to receive any information you may have. Another UK issue is the dumping of red-eared sliders in ponds, where if they survive they can wreak havoc. Rehoming these fugitives may be a worthwhile move on your part (but check the law).

Another practical step is the growth of conservation holidays, where volunteers go abroad to work on projects for a couple of weeks in return for their board and lodging. The ones in Europe so far seem to involve mainly conservation work for the marine turtles of the Mediterranean, which is perhaps as it should be as these have been severely threatened. I cannot personally vouch for the quality of these holidays, having never been on one myself, but this at least offers an avenue which is worth exploring.

One area I am wary of, however, is simply donating money. There are some good voluntary bodies working with animals at grass-roots level and trying to act in their best interests, often making heroic efforts to do so. However, there are also a lot of organisations whose titles or mission statements contain the mantra "animal welfare" but which really have more to do with an animal rights agenda, which is a different thing entirely. For this reason I would never give to several large organisations, and I urge anyone thinking of donating money to make sure they get a good background check on the body they wish to donate to.

In sum, then, there is much that can be done with and for the reptiles and amphibians of Europe. We may not have the giant goannas or venomous snakes of Australia or the dazzling coloured frogs of the Americas, but Europe does have a beautiful herpetofauna of its own. It would be a shame to neglect such wonders on our doorstep.

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