How to keep snakes out of your yard — but should you?

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Slithering around yards and hiding in dark, damp areas, snakes can startle people. How do you keep snakes out of your yard? And should you?

How to keep snakes out of your yard | Pictured: a garter snake in underbrush
A garter snake hides in the underbrush. | Aislinn Sarnacki

From Harry Potter to Indiana Jones, snakes are among the most maligned species in popular culture. The roots of our aversion to the slithering critters may even be biblical — after all, it was a snake that ruined paradise for the first man and woman.

But snakes don’t deserve their sinful reputation. Sure, some species are poisonous, and snakes may munch on eggs from your chicken coop, but there are many perks to having snakes on your property.

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“Their food is animals that can cause damage to property,” says Melissa Amarello, co-founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation, a New Mexico-based non-profit that educates people about how to coexist with snakes. 

Packrats, insects, squirrels and even venomous snakes (if they live in your area) are among the prey of snakes you could find in your yard. Unlike the rodents they dine on, snakes are not known to transmit any disease to humans. Plus, if there is a snake on your land, it is usually a sign that you are doing something right and your local ecosystem is healthy and thriving.

What to do if you see a snake

The short answer: don’t try to move or kill it. Most likely, the snake is not poisonous. Keep your distance and let it slither on its merry way. Snakes do not attack unless provoked.

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Even though there are some physiological differences between most venomous snakes and their nonvenomous counterparts, Amarello recommends not trying your hand at amateur snake identification. “It can be really hard to tell the difference,” Amarello says. “They can all be appreciated from a safe distance.”

If the snake is in your house or on your porch, you can use a long-handled broom or rake to gently coax it outside. If that’s not possible, try confining the snake to a room or corner with boards or boxes. Then call a professional handler — either the fire department, animal control, or a private service specializing in snake removal, depending on where you live — who will relocate your unwanted reptilian guest.

But there is a downside to the snake removal quick-fix. “I think that gives people a false sense of security.” Amarello says. “There’s a reason the first snake showed up. If that reason isn’t addressed, another one is likely to show up.”

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What deters snakes?

If you can’t get past your ophidiophobia, the best way to keep snakes out of your yard is to take away their sources of food and shelter. Snakes like dark, damp areas with plenty of cover, like wood piles, unmowed lawns with tall grass and overgrown shrubbery. Clear the yard of piles of rocks or debris, mow grass frequently and keep building materials and firewood piles elevated slightly off the ground. You can even keep piles of rocks, brush or dense vegetation on the outskirts of your property to divert snakes seeking shelter.

Also, take extra steps to control rodent and insect populations, like keeping pet food tightly sealed, rodent-proofing your chicken coops and never leaving garbage outside overnight unless it is tightly-sealed bins.

Since snakes mostly enter on the ground floor of houses, the best way to keep snakes out of your house is to seal all ground level openings with mesh hardware cloth, caulk, or mortar. Snakes can also slither under poorly fitting doors, including garage doors, so outfit the bottoms with metal flashing or weather stripping.

Is killing snakes illegal?

It depends on state laws, but in most states, non-venomous snakes are protected from indiscriminate killing and you need at least a hunting license to kill them. If killing snakes is legal in your state, you should still probably stay away from the shovel: if the snake is poisonous, the freshly decapitated heads can still inject venom through a bite reflex that lingers for a short period of time after death.

Even then, the panic surrounding deadly snakes is largely overblown. “Most venomous snakes aren’t deadly. If you get to a hospital with a day or two, you’ll probably be fine,” Amarello says. “The threat is not as big as driving a car or getting bit by a strange dog that shows up in your yard.”

Do mothballs repel snakes?

Moth balls are common old-time home remedy to keep snakes away, but this old wives’ tale doesn’t stand the test of science. Mothballs don’t repel snakes. Snakes “smell” with their tongues, so methods like mothballs that rely on odors are unlikely to deter them. In fact, the odors from mothballs are more likely to bother the mammalian residents of your homestead — curious children and pets have also been known to put toxic mothballs in their mouths — and mothball chemicals like naphthalene can leach into your drinking water.

Some commercially marketed repellents for snakes can be effective, but Amarello says they too can be “more damaging to the yard than having a snake.” If you want to take extra measures to keep snakes away, it is better to build a snake-proof fence: at least four feet high with solid buried wood footing and a wall of smooth, fine (at least ¼ inch) galvanized mesh.

Commercially marketed repellents for snakes can be effective, but Amarello says they can be “more damaging to the yard than having a snake.” If you want to take extra measures to keep snakes away, it is better to build a snake-proof fence: at least four feet high with solid buried wood footing and a wall of smooth, fine (at least ¼ inch) galvanized mesh.

“The main thing is that you want to put it up in such a way that it goes into the ground just a little bit,” Amarello says. “You don’t want them to be able to crawl underneath it.”

Also avoid building the fence near low trees or shrubs; snakes can climb, and they will see branches as bridges.

But Amarello suggests embracing your scaly neighbors.

“I don’t know why people would want to keep snakes off of their property,” she says. Instead, just clear your walkways, watch where you put your hands and feet when rummaging around dark places, and enjoy the free pest control.

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