Everything you need to know about snakes on the farm

Jonathan David

From Paradise Lost to Indiana Jones, human antipathy to snakes seems to be a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct. While many people keep snakes as pets and love it, many people’s instinctive reaction to encountering a snake is to shriek and grab the nearest blunt object.

Milk snakes are non-venomous and can be beneficial to humans because they consume animals that are often much more destructive to human environments, like rodents.

This is especially true for farmers, who are concerned not just with their own safety, but those of their livestock, especially since things like chicken eggs and baby chicks can be easy targets for a hungry snake. However, snakes, as unpleasant as they may be, are important parts of their ecosystems, and their presence on a farm is usually beneficial to the environment as a whole, even as it harms your animal population. As with most things, having snakes on the farm is more complicated than it may first appear to be.

Ecosystems and Pest Control 

The main argument in favor of snakes is the same one people often make for spiders: However unpleasant they might be, their predatory instincts help control other pests that are much, much worse. For one thing, many snakes’ favorite prey are mice, rats, and other rodents that can get into the house or the animal feed and cause havoc; having them around can be almost as good a check on the rodent population as having a good mouser. In fact, the population of timber rattlesnakes in the American northeast is such a strong check on mouse populations that they can actually slow the spread of Lyme disease by ticks that live on mice.

Like all animals, snakes are part of the delicate balance of the ecosystem, and destroying the snake population, as pleasant as it might seem in the short run, could have disastrous consequences for the wider environment. Unfortunately, knee-jerk responses and human development have greatly reduced snake populations across the country, and many snakes in North America are now endangered – which means even if you want to, it might be illegal to kill them.   

Protecting livestock from predatory snakes 

Of course, however beneficial they may be for the wider environment, snakes can still definitely have a detrimental impact on the ecosystem of a farm, as they’re known to eat both chicks and eggs, and a snakebite for any livestock could be a serious injury. Most of the snakes in the American northeast are non-venomous, but even non-venomous snakebites can lead to complications and infections; if you suspect any of your animals may have been bitten by a snake, the best thing to do is to contact their vet as soon as possible.         

Completely eliminating snakes from any population of livestock that lives outside is nearly impossible, for the obvious reason that snakes also live outside, and aren’t known to be kept out by the things that keep cows and sheep in, like wooden fences and electrified wires.

Therefore, your best bet isn’t to try to eliminate snakes from the area entirely, but instead to make the area around your livestock as unappealing a snake habitat as possible, which mostly means keeping hiding places to a minimum. Ruminants will help you in this regard, as their constant grazing will hopefully keep the grass short enough that it’s not a safe place for a snake to hide, although you’re still responsible for any fields and pastures they don’t graze in. Keeping things like woodpiles and compost heaps away from the livestock will also help, as will elevating and sealing up any nearby sheds and buildings.         

Protecting chicken coops is a little more intense, if only because snakes present a bigger threat there. Again, elevating coops off the ground will help keep snakes at bay, as will checking for any cracks or holes bigger than half an inch that a snake might sneak through. Keeping mice and rats out of and away from the coop will encourage the snakes to find food elsewhere, as will keeping on top of collecting eggs regularly, so they don’t accumulate into a snake buffet. The same environmental management techniques to keep snakes away from pastures can also be used here to great effect.   

The human relationship to snakes can be a complicated one. As much as our evolutionary instinct is to hate them, they also fear us, and with good reason. In any given year, many, many more snakes are killed by humans than the other way around, and often with no need – as long as people make an effort to protect the things that need to be protected, there’s no reason living in harmony with snakes can’t be beneficial for everyone involved.    

Johnathan David is a fourth generation reptile keeper and wildlife biologist.