A personal contribution from Big Scrub Landcare member, Ken Dorey.
The common carpet snake is a usually placid, frequently encountered member of the Big Scrub.
That’s always how I’ve seen them, until I stumbled across a 10-foot specimen that wasn’t too happy to be found. This snake coiled and struck out at me, unprovoked – something I’ve never seen a carpet snake do before.
Carpet snakes typically grow to 6-7′ (2-2.5m), but can grow up to 13′ (4m), and are one of the relatively few reptiles that inhabit rainforest (reptiles prefer sunnier territory to stay warm). Given their habitat, alarming size and, in my encounter, potential aggression I wondered what their relationship was like with early settlers.
The first reference to “carpet” and “snake” that I found was an 1839 account of a Hawkesbury River woman who found a 10’ 6” snake eating her chickens. She thought that it was, ironically, a piece of carpet. The end result, as so many of these encounters were, was two dead chickens and one dead snake.
The wildest and most disturbing carpet snake story that I found was reported in The Northern Star in 1887. The article begins by describing the killing of a 13’ snake by Aboriginal men tracking a stray bullock. The article details a struggling calf, the hurling of “paddy melon sticks”, cave-dwelling evil spirits, wailing aboriginal women and a missing child: the account may have been embellished, but I warn that it is a very disturbing and offensive story that can’t be unread.
I can find two reports of carpet snakes attacking sleeping children, one at Myall and the other at Nanango. In 1907, a “young lady” was bitten above the ankle one evening at the Ballina cutting – “permanganate of potash was applied and no serious results happened”. In 1912, while walking home at night, Ritta Hobbs of Coorabell was bitten on the leg;. She “rubbed salt into the wound, and no ill-effects followed”.
In most carpet-human encounters the snake comes off second best. Sometimes they were killed outright or for their skin, and sometimes captured for collectors or relocated to barns and roofs for rodent control. In 1912 Mr Parcel of Mullumbimby was the biggest buyer of carpet snakes, while in 1940 Mr Hensley paid Lismore police 10 shillings for a 12’ snake that had “resisted arrest” at Lillian Rocks and had caused a scuffle at the station. In 1914 Alf Cottee of Nimbin disturbed an 11’ 3” carpet snake while brushing lantana. Alf watched the fight for an hour while his little black cattle dog, bitten 5 times, and the snake fought until exhausted before he “despatched” and skinned the snake.
Perhaps the carpet snake question was best summed up by a “spirited” 12 minute debate of the Primary Producers’ Union in 1947. Many delegates decried chicken-eating carpets as a mixed blessing, while two delegates from the Richmond defended them as non-venomous destroyers of rabbits and rats that were being killed at increasing rates for women’s shoes. They argued successfully, 12 votes to 7, that carpet snakes deserved the same government protection as goannas.
I’d like to second that motion!
Photo: Ken Dorey.