Country Life: The responsibilities of snake-keeping

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In many ways we count ourselves lucky to have a wildlife consultant as a neighbour.

In many ways we count ourselves lucky to have a wildlife consultant as a neighbour. For more than two years, Will has been sporadically popping round to the back door to tell us that he has found a pond full of almost 1,000 copulating frogs and would be very happy to show it to us, or would the boys like to go bat detecting with him, or would it be OK if he and a friend investigated how many species of moth there are living in our wood?

The children, in particular, have benefited immeasurably from Will's boundless zeal for natural history, and certainly when you live in the sticks, a long way from the nearest skateboard park, it is helpful to know where there is a frog bonkfest going on.

However - I'm sure you detected a "however" coming - there is also an occasional downside to Will's back-door visits, and the latest downside is in the form of a snake called Nigel, who is shortly to take up residence in our son Joseph's bedroom. Nigel is a baby corn snake, also known as a red rat snake. Corn snakes are non-venomous constrictors and come from the south-eastern seaboard of the United States, where they tend to live in corn fields, although Nigel has spent all his life in Ledbury. Joseph has called him Nigel because he is getting him from Will's friend, also a Nigel. We all agree with Joseph that Nigel is a fine name for a snake, although Nigel (the man) tells us that it is actually a bit too early to determine the sex of Nigel (the snake), who is only six months old. So the reptile might have to be renamed Nigella, which my wife quite hopes will prove to be the case, just because I once came back from interviewing Nigella Lawson full of what Jane thought was unseemly enthusiasm.

Anyway, I wouldn't want to worry either of the Nigels by suggesting here that we intend to be anything other than welcoming and caring. But it has to be said that there are responsibilities involved in snake-keeping that Jane and I could do without. Not least of them concerns diet.

Corn snakes eat dead rodents, so we already have a bag of baby mice in our freezer, disconcertingly close to a bag of king prawns. The woman at Leominster Pet Supplies didn't bat an eyelid when we asked her for a supply of dead baby mice. She called them "pinkies" and explained that when our snake gets older he (or she) will move on to "fuzzies", which are mice with a slight covering of fur.

She also sells frozen rats and even rabbits to people with bigger reptiles than Nigel. There's a lot of it around, apparently.

For Jane, meanwhile, this is all worryingly reminiscent of a trauma she suffered in Tunbridge Wells some years ago. She rented a room from a man called Ed who asked her whether she had any objection to sharing a house with a reptile. Picturing a lizard or two in a glass case she said no, then moved in to find that the reptile was a 10-foot python called Grover.

Still, she grew reasonably used to Grover and liked Ed, although all hell - and more worryingly, Grover - broke loose one weekend when Ed was away. First Jane saw that Grover had dislodged the top of his tank and escaped, then she heard a great deal of angry banging coming from the pan cupboard in the kitchen. Understandably reluctant to deal with an enraged, escaped python on her own, she phoned Ed's friend, who was a PE teacher. And through her anxiety had to laugh when she opened the door half an hour later to find him wearing cricket pads, boxing gloves and a fencing mask.

I don't think we'll have such problems with Nigel. Apart from anything else he's unlikely to grow longer than 4ft, although that seems quite long enough to me. "He should slough his skin every three to four weeks," said Nigel senior. "Oh marvellous," I said.

* Hats off to the remote Herefordshire village of Wigmore, which the weekend before last held two days of fund-raising involving practically the whole community, to help victims of the tsunami. The disaster had particular resonance in Wigmore because a local family, the Oxleys, had emigrated to Sri Lanka only a few months earlier, and with cosmic bad luck had set up home in one of the areas that was most devastated.

With cosmic good luck, on the other hand, the Oxleys survived, and have since devoted themselves to the relief operation. Meanwhile, the children of Wigmore Primary School - of which Mark Oxley was a governor, where Mary Oxley worked, and where their children Nicola and Luke were pupils - have been raising funds like mad knowing exactly what the money is being used for.

As for Wigmore's tsunami weekend, its highlight was a concert in St James's Church, which I'm told by those who attended was an eclectic but uplifting and indeed robustly catered affair.

The good people of Wigmore did not go hungry in the church. Or thirsty. Apparently, there were trestle tables set up for the interval that positively groaned under huge quantities of cake, while a tower of wine glasses was balanced around the font, as if in preparation, reported my informant, "for some wonderfully irreverent champagne fountain".

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