Serpent Trail: South Downs walk through a reptile-rich habitat as rare as the rainforest

If you hear the words trail and South Downs, your first thought is probably of the world-famous South Downs Way.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 2:22 pm

But there is also a lesser known trail that reveals some of the most beautiful and rare heathland found in Europe – a colourful habitat teeming with reptiles, amphibians and rare birds.

Now the 65-mile long Serpent Trail – so-called because of its resemblance to a snake on a map – has been upgraded and given a new lease of life.

Olivia French, activities and engagement officer for the Heathlands Reunited Project, which launched the trail in 2005, said: “We’re excited to be reviving this beautiful trail and highlighting the threatened habitat which is actually as rare as the rainforest.

“The Serpent Trail is a fantastic opportunity to see some of the most magical and inspiring lowland heaths you’ll see anywhere in Europe.

“It’s obviously a very fragile habitat so we would always ask walkers to leave no trace, but we also want people to get out and enjoy this fantastic trail.

“By more people understanding and appreciating how amazing our heaths are, the more chance they have of surviving and flourishing.

“The trail connects two towns that are very accessible by train, so it’s a great way to explore the South Downs National Park and leave the car at home.”

Stedham Common. Photo by Sam Moore

As well as re-routing parts of the trail to move them on to more scenic paths, the trail is now colour coded by direction so that walkers can follow the route from the head or tail and start from any point.

A brand-new colourful downloadable guide has also been produced to help walkers navigate the trail.

The trail snakes its away from Haslemere in Surrey (the head and tongue), climbing up to its highest point in the National Park at Black Down, then weaving its way onward to Petersfield in Hampshire.

Depending on the time of the year, walkers may be lucky enough to spot some of the rare, and often secretive, wildlife on the route, including sand lizards, smooth snakes, the silver-studded blue butterfly or the Dartford Warbler.

Heathland sand lizard

The trail shows off the outstanding landscape of the greensand hills, its wildlife, and rich history, as well as more recent conservation efforts to protect the incredibly fragile lowland heath habitats.

The patchwork of lowland heath sites along the Serpent Trail are a stronghold for all six of the UK’s native reptile species, including the elusive smooth snake and the striking sand lizard.

In the spring, lizards can often be seen sunning themselves on south-facing spots at various heathland sites along the trail.

The Heathlands Reunited Project is a partnership between 11 organisations that is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The partners are: National Trust, Ministry of Defence, Lynchmere Society, Forestry England, Sussex Wildlife Trust, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Hampshire County Council, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, RSPB and the South Downs National Park Authority.

Smooth snake

For more information on the Serpent Trail and to download a copy of the new trail guide visit www.southdowns.gov.uk/get-active/on-foot/serpent-trail.

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Olivia French, activities and engagement officer for the Heathlands Reunited Project
Misty morning at Petersfield Heath. Photo by Rachel Jamieson
Walkers on Midhurst Common. Photo by Anne Purkiss