How to Get Rid of Water Snakes in Garden Ponds (And Keep Them Out)
Snakes. The idea of these smooth, slithering critters may fill you with dread and fear, or you may be one of those rare people whom understands their important role in ecosystems, or perhaps you’re a bit of both. Regardless of which of those people you are, as a pond owner you likely experience at least a bit of anxiety at the notion of snakes living near or visiting your pond and its potentially palatable residents.
How Many Pond Snake Species Are There?
The United States alone has approximately 50 different snake species, with over 3,500 species existing in the entire world. In fact, the only continent with a complete absence of snakes is, predictably, Antarctica, making it quite likely that your backyard pond will have a snake visitor or two (or many) at some point during its existence.
However, before you allow fear to overtake you, keep in mind that snakes are quite environmentally important and there are measures that can be taken to prevent them from posing a threat to your pond. Killing them is an absolute last resort and should be avoided altogether, as studies have found that as much as two-thirds of snake populations worldwide have declined drastically over the last several decades. Why does that matter?
Why Snakes Are Important (Wildlife Considerations & Benefits)
1) Snakes Help Control Pests & Disease
As mid and sometimes top tier predators, snakes are critical population regulators. Without them, small animals such as mice, voles, and reptiles like lizards would quickly reproduce to unsustainable population sizes. Through controlling these populations, snakes also help to mitigate the spread of diseases (such as Lyme disease, which is a rodent-borne disease) and lessen parasite populations, such as black-legged ticks, that utilize small rodents and other mammals as hosts.
2) Snakes Help Regulate Eco-systems & Plants
In addition, owls, hawks, eagles, foxes, weasels, and some wild cat species (such as bobcats and jaguars) prey on snakes, in turn controlling their populations. Snakes face immense peril from things such as habitat destruction, direct killing by humans, pollution, urban and agricultural development, domestic pets like cats and dogs, and the introduction of invasive species that out-compete native snakes. In ecosystems where snakes have historically been present but then disappear, critical functions are disrupted – too many mice can consume too many seeds, with this leading to a loss of native plant biodiversity.
3) Snakes Help Feed Other Animals
This in turn impacts birds, insects, and various mammals that in some way or another rely on those plants. In short, snakes are largely misunderstood and underappreciated creatures that help keep small animal populations in check, reduce the spread of parasites and disease, and provide food for equally important animals like hawks, foxes, and owls (all of which are struggling thanks to our widespread use of rodent poison).
So rather than freak out about having a snake by or in your pond and wanting to eliminate it as quickly as possible, try following this guide on how to protect your fish and other pond inhabitants from these vastly undervalued environmental helpers before they become a backyard encumbrance.
Why Are Snakes Attracted to Ponds?
Your pond provides fresh water, habitat, and food that may look appealing to a variety of snake species. The northern ribbon snake, for example, is found solely near water and fish are a staple of its diet, while blue racers (which are not venomous, contrary to popular belief) are found almost exclusively in dry fields and sunny forests as they don’t prefer damp habitats, nor do they prey on fish.
Northern brown snakes may wander to ponds on rare occasions if there are underground burrows nearby but exclusively eat slugs, beetles, worms, and other subterranean insects, so they pose no threat to your fish. Garter snakes enjoy being near water, will consume small fish, and also like hanging out in garden vegetation and shrubby plants, and so are attracted to ponds for all of those reasons.
Which Snakes Are Common Around Ponds? (US & UK)
In the U.K., grass snakes (Natrix natrix) and occasionally barred grass snakes (Natrix helvetica) can be found in and around ponds. Commonly found species in the U.S. are the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), northern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis), and the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon).
Is It Safe to Catch & Remove Water Snakes?
This depends entirely on the species of snake, the circumstances, and your level of experience and comfort with snakes. For example, removing a simple garter snake, which are small, shy, and non-venomous, is relatively safe, while removing a water moccasin is obviously not. When handling snakes, always wear protective clothing and thick leather gloves so that no skin is showing. It’s best to use a large net or a live trap to capture the snakes, rather than grabbing them by hand.
If you’re unsure of the snake species or whether it’s venomous, please contact a professional. Your local wildlife office, such as the wildlife division of the DNR, a conservation officer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, or a local nature conservancy may be able to help you without killing the snake. Look up any wildlife biologists that are near you, and ask for their advice and/or help. If that’s not available to you, here’s a handy blog post from a wildlife biologist in Minnesota who’s focused most of his life on reptiles. A great read for anyone interested!
How to Keep Water Snakes Out Of Ponds (Best Snake Deterrents)
1) Use Snake Traps
Minnow traps are tubular mesh structures with openings that allow the snake to get in but not get back out again, and are very effective at catching most pond snakes! These can be placed in shallow water with bait such as minnows, dead or live rodents, etcetera, or on land and then checked morning and night. Snakes should be released a couple of miles away (in suitable habitat – please research which snake species you’ve captured, as releasing it in a proper area will lessen the likelihood of it returning to your pond).
Large glue traps can also work, and snakes can be released by pouring vegetable oil or some other type of natural oil over the snake. Again, move the snake at least a couple of miles away so that it’s less inclined to find its way back. Keep in mind that, in some areas and with some snake species, relocating them is illegal. Be sure to check with your local wildlife office before doing so! The same is true of killing snakes.
2) Create Fish Hiding Spots
Try providing plenty of hiding spots for your fish in your pond, via underwater logs or fish shelters, plenty of natural vegetation, or underwater overhangs that your fish can hide under. If snakes can’t readily see your fish and/or they seem like too much work to get to, they’ll give up within a short period of time.
3) Scent Deterrents (Snake Repellents)
Mongooses, foxes, minks, and badgers all prey on snakes. Their urine can be purchased from some hardware stores or online. King snake musk also reportedly works, and can be found readily online. Try spreading one or several of these around your pond to deter snakes from coming too close.
The USDA recommends trying cinnamon oil, clove oil, or eugenol to naturally repel snakes. The compounds in these oils apparently disrupt snakes’ chemosensory systems, both causing them discomfort and making it difficult for them to hone in on prey, while not adversely impacting other animals.
4) Fountains, Waterfalls & Aerators
Most snakes favor still water over disturbed water. Adding in a fountain, waterfall or aerator may be enough to deter snakes as these will disrupt the water, thus making it both less appealing and harder to see fish in the water.
5) Clean Up Your Yard
Snakes enjoy hiding in things like leaf piles, wood piles, ground holes, and leftover grass clippings. Be sure to clean up any piles of leaves, wood, and grass, and you can fill in holes in the ground will dirt or rocks. Most snake species don’t create their own holes, but rather occupy dens that have been abandoned by things like mice, groundhogs, and foxes.
6) Introduce Plants Snakes Dislike
Some plants emit compounds that are unpleasant to snakes. Garlic, lemongrass, marigolds, and wormwood all purportedly repel snakes, so try planting them around your pond and throughout your yard. As an added bonus, marigolds also repel rabbits, so having them around your garden and pond can prevent rabbits and some other rodents from deciding to nibble on your veggies or other desirable plants.
7) Leave it Be (Not all snakes eat fish!)
This one may sound odd, but try observing the snake for several days before taking action. Not all snakes will try to eat your fish, but if they do, it could potentially be a boon to you! If you have a fish species, such as comets, that can reach a high population quickly, the snake may help you to naturally keep your pond healthy and balanced! Others may eat insects or rodents nearby and not show interest in your fish. Common snake species that have been known to prey on smaller fish include water snakes, ribbon snakes, and garter snakes. Others, like brown snakes, feed on only insects.
8) Introduce Natural Snake Predators
There are a few creatures that are known to eat snakes. Large adult bullfrogs, largemouth bass, and opossums commonly eat snakes, including venomous ones! If your pond can sustain it, try having a largemouth bass in your pond, or creating habitat near your pond to encourage bullfrogs to move in (emergent plants in and around your pond should be enough). In North America, possums are common and are likely to come around on their own, but if you’re having trouble attracting them try putting out a bowl of cat food and constructing a possum box in your yard. As an added bonus, these equally misunderstood little guys will eat small rodents and can eat hundreds of ticks in a single day!
Don’t be fooled be their sharp teeth or hiss if you get too close – possums are easily frightened and typically won’t attack things larger than them. They also have poor eyesight and are lazy, preferring to scavenge over fishing, so providing hiding places for your fish should be enough to keep them safe. If they do become a problem, however, you can follow our guide to warding off pond predators.
9) Introduce Goats, Deer or Horses
This is not a realistic option for all pond owners, but if you have the space and resources, horses and goats really, really dislike snakes. If one is found too close, they’ll stomp them to death. A grisly death that of course should be at the bottom of your list of possible approaches, but one that works if you have the time, money, and space or already have large hoofed animals. Sometimes, the smell of these creatures alone is enough to keep snakes at bay.
Wild deer, too, will stomp snakes, so you may consider allowing them to browse in your yard a bit if they happen to wander your way. Be wary of having these animals too close to your pond, however, as the runoff from their food and waste can damage water quality.