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Kate meets Sophie the corn snake on a day trip to Northern Ireland

The duchess chatted with youngsters during a visit to an open farm in Co Down.

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The Duchess of Cambridge handles a snake during a visit to The Ark Open Farm, at Newtownards, near Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Duchess of Cambridge handles a snake during a visit to The Ark Open Farm, at Newtownards, near Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Duchess of Cambridge handles a snake during a visit to The Ark Open Farm, at Newtownards, near Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Duchess of Cambridge turned snake charmer as she handled a corn snake on a surprise day trip to Northern Ireland.

Kate was left amazed as she held the pale yellow reptile named Sophie at the Ark Open Farm in Newtownards, confessing it was the first time she had picked one up.

Holding out her arms, the duchess remarked: “Are you sure it’s OK? Oh my goodness. No way,” before adding: “Is there a way to hold her? Wow, look at that.”

She asked a youngster next to her: “Do you want to touch the snake?”

Kate added: “She’s got the most amazing skin. This is the first time I’ve ever held a snake like that. How cool is that?”

The snake’s handler Sophie Wrigglesworth, 26, from Co Down told the PA news agency that they had not originally planned to bring the snake out to the duchess as they had been advised she had a fear of them.

“But she said, ‘oh no, I want to see the snake’, straight away she held it,” she said, adding that they often receive visitors with a fear of snakes.

“We have a creepy crawly loft, spiders, hissing cockroaches, and stick insects, you often get people who say ‘oh no, I’m not touching them’ but then they do have a feel and it encourages them to face their fears.

“It was good fun meeting the duchess, quite nerve wracking initially but she was so calm and collected, and she was good at approaching people and making sure everyone felt comfortable.”

Royal visit to Northern Ireland
Kate talks to children as she holds the snake (Liam McBurney/PA)

During her one-stop solo visit to Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Kate was given a guided tour of the farm in Co Down, meeting the owners and staff at the family-run attraction.

She laughed and chatted with young children as she made her way around the farm, pointing out a large bull to a little boy, exclaiming “massive, he’s huge isn’t he?”, before admiring a brown alpaca which seemed as eager as the crowds of people to meet the royal visitor, trotting across its stall to her as she approached.

Next was the turn of some of the smaller animals as Kate joined a group of children petting a rabbit, before one to feed a lamb.

Royal visit to Northern Ireland
The Duchess of Cambridge helps children feed a lamb some milk during a visit to The Ark Open Farm, at Newtownards. (Liam McBurney/PA)

The visit comes as the mother of three has turned the spotlight on early childhood development, which is aimed at improving life chances by supporting expectant parents, parents and carers of children up to five years old, young children and their families.

Kate also spent time at the Ark speaking to parents, carers and grandparents of children about some of the challenges they face.

She listened sympathetically as she moved around tables in the cafe as she was told about issues before moving into a private conversation.

The visit came to an end with the duchess unveiling a plaque to mark the 30th birthday of the Ark.

Royal visit to Northern Ireland
Kate waves to one of the youngsters at the centre (Peter Byrne/PA)

Last month, Kate launched a landmark national survey on the early years development of children.

The poll, conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Royal Foundation, is thought to be the biggest survey of its kind and asks “five big questions on the under-fives”.

She has already visited Birmingham, Cardiff, Woking and London to promote her survey and has heard from people across communities about their thoughts on how experiences in the early years can impact upon later life.

The duchess had made the issue of the “future health and happiness” of children a pillar of her public activities and hopes the results of the survey will spark a conversation on early childhood and guide the focus of her work.

PA