Children from Puddletown First School and Cheselbourne School in Dorset assisted conservationists in giving the UK's rarest lizard a helping hand. 

They released 84 sand lizards at the heath within Puddletown Forest in Dorset, bringing the total number released in the current programme to 10,000. This work is part of an ongoing partnership to restore the species to its former range.

During the project the children met staff from Natural England (NE), Dorset Council (DC) and Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC) who are some of the partners in this re-introduction project.

Lowland heathland is a priority for nature conservation because it is a rare and threatened habitat. During the last two centuries much of our heathland has been lost, with about 20% remaining, though we still have some of the best heathlands in the whole of Europe. During the last 25 years Natural England, landowners and conservation organisations have helped by managing and restoring large areas of heathland to improve and enhance this habitat.

Heathland is one our rarest habitats, supporting a large variety of plants and animals. Many of these are very rare and can only survive and flourish on heathland. It is a wilderness habitat and important within our history and culture, though requires active management to keep it as an open habitat.

The management within Puddletown Forest has restored a large area of prime heathland, allowing the plants and animals to thrive. Large areas of heath are important as they provide the most opportunities for all of the different plants and animals. This management has also re-connected the neighbouring heaths within the forest, managed by Dorset Council and Forestry England. The connection of these heaths increases the wildlife they support. It also allows opportunities for many plants and animals to naturally recolonise into areas where they may have been previously lost.

Heathland is the only habitat that can support all six of our native reptiles (sand lizard, common lizard, slow-worm, smooth snake, adder and grass snake). All of these species, except sand lizard, are already present at Puddletown Forest. Sand lizards cannot easily recolonise sites and often need help to bring them back.

Captive breeding is often the only way of restoring sand lizards to their previous sites. Four sites help with this project including Avon Heath Country Park (DC), Marwell Wildlife and the New Forest Reptile Centre (FE). These venues have large outdoor enclosures that mimic the sand lizard's natural heath environment. From these, the captive-bred juveniles are released on the re-introduction site in early September to allow the animals to gradually get used to their new home before hibernation in October.

The children helped by finding the best possible area for releasing the juvenile sand lizards at Puddletown Forest. This area included a mix of open ground bordered by mature heather, providing the animals with shelter to assist them through hibernation. The children also helped with naming the sand lizards when they were released which will help with identifying the animals when we monitor them to see how the animals are doing at their new home.

This was the final of the three programmed releases to reintroduce the species.

Future work will include surveys to see how the animals are doing. The surveys are a long-term process to see if the animals are breeding and gradually starting to increase their range through time. As the heaths are very well managed for all of the native plants and animals we are certain that the sand lizards will also do very well.


The sand lizard – the UK’s largest and rarest lizard

The sand lizard is only found on two rare habitats in the UK: sand dunes and lowland dry heath. Even on these habitats the animals will only use certain areas and will only be found in areas facing predominantly south, towards the sun. These habitats are now fragmented by housing, fields, forests, etc. that the species cannot live on so colonisation of other habitats is severely restricted. On dunes the species prefers “frontal” dune ridges dominated by Marram grass. On heaths the species prefers ridges, slopes, etc. dominated by areas of mature heath that has both cover and open areas. In both habitats open areas of sand are essential for laying their eggs.

Sand lizards are active from late March to late October. Males emerge from hibernation from late March onwards followed by younger animals then females. Breeding occurs in May. Egg-laying along sandy tracks and other open areas of sand occurs in early June. Juveniles emerge from their eggs in August and early September. Hibernation occurs in September for adults and late October for juveniles. Sand lizards are insectivorous and generalist feeders.

Due to vast habitat loss, primarily during the 20th century, natural populations became extinct in Kent, Sussex, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Devon, Cornwall, Cheshire and north and west Wales. Further substantial losses of 97%, 95% and 90% were observed in Merseyside, Surrey and Dorset respectively. The remaining colonies are mostly on fragmented areas of heath or dune that are often small, isolated and surrounded by woodland and plantations, urban development, mineral extraction, etc.

Due to these losses the sand lizard was considered sufficiently endangered to receive protection through both national and international legislation. It is also listed as a priority species for conservation action in the United Kingdom. The sand lizard is currently part of ARC’s Species Action Plan, which is trying to protect and restore the sand lizard’s status.

Before the species can be re-introduced to a site it must be established that the species is not already present. Surveys over five years are undertaken to establish that the species is not already present. Habitat management is often also necessary to make certain that all of the species needs are catered for. This management often entails the removal of invasive trees from the site, bracken management, fire-breaking and sand management (for egg-laying).

Captive breeding facilities try to emulate the species natural habitats such as dune or heath. They are constructed outdoors and are predominantly south-facing to catch the sun. Egg-laying areas are provided and the eggs are removed as soon as possible after they are laid and then artificially incubated. This type of incubation allows for earlier emergence than in the wild and allows the young to increase their body-mass allowing them a better chance to survive their first hibernation.

The releases are undertaken in early September and phased through three years. On average around 50 captive-bred juveniles are released each year. This has been found to be sufficient to establish a structured population. Animals to be released are moved in well-ventilated, escape-proof boxes. Keeping the animals in cool, dark and damp conditions reduces stress and dehydration. Where possible the animals are released in warm and sunny weather conditions. This allows them to adapt to the site conditions gradually.

To date there have been 76 sand lizard reintroductions (66% have been successful, 13.8% are ongoing and doing well, 13.8% have been successful then damaged due to habitat loss (mainly via large summer fires), 3% failed due to poor habitat choice at release area and at 3% the status is currently unknown). The reintroduction programme has successfully returned the species (c.10,000 animals) to both dune and heathland habitats to 12 Vice-Counties in England and Wales. In seven of these counties the species had been lost. 

STATISTICS: The declining fortunes of amphibians and reptiles

>      Of the UK’s 13 species of amphibians and reptiles, ten species are listed on the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) ‘Watchlist’.

>      Of Europe’s 151 reptile species, 22% are on the Red List. Source: IUCN

Why are amphibians and reptiles disappearing?

Amphibians and reptiles have declined primarily through loss of habitat associated with the intensification of agriculture and other land-use changes such as building development.  Losses of ponds, hedgerows and rough grassland have reduced the habitat available to widespread species.  The especially rare species, such as the sand lizard, have also suffered due to the loss of their specific habitats (lowland heathland and dunes) to development and recreational impacts.  Fragmentation of habitat is a particular problem for these species as they cannot move long distances, or travel over inhospitable habitat.

SPECIES ACTION PLANS – a roadmap to conserving reptiles in the UK

Amphibian and Reptile Conservation has listed 133 actions to save the UK’s snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and newts. The actions we are undertaking for the UK’s snakes are listed in two Species Action Plans: the Widespread Reptile Species Action Plan (adder and grass snake (along with slow-worm and common lizard) and the Rare Reptiles Species Action Plan (smooth snake along with sand lizard).