An introduction to sand lizards

Sand lizards are the UK's rarest lizard species, with populations limited to sites in Surrey, Dorset, Hampshire and the protected Merseyside dunes systems. Even within these sites, their range is limited by their requirement for sunny, undisturbed, open sand which they lay their eggs in. Due to this, the species was likely rare historically, though recent reintroduction work is focusing on returning them to sites where they have previously been documented. There are three genetically distinct races of sand lizard, the dune race and the two heath races. 

ARC's captive breeding and reintroduction of sand lizards

ARC’s work on sand lizards involves a range of activities, including monitoring and provision of habitat management advice. In this section we focus on one specific element: captive breeding and reintroduction.

The biology and status of sand lizards mean that captive breeding and reintroduction is a useful conservation tool. In the wild, the vagaries of our climate, predation and disturbance to egg-laying areas mean that only around 5% will survive to become adults. Since sand lizards cannot disperse far, or indeed at all over hostile habitats, they do not easily colonise newly suitable areas distant from occupied sites. All of this means that an effective way to recover their lost range is to reintroduce sand lizards using captive bred animals.

The captive breeding programme involves a range of stakeholders including ARC, government agencies, volunteers, zoos and other organisations. Together we developed best practice for both husbandry and re-introduction. Animals are kept in specially designed enclosures at 10 facilities, in as natural conditions as possible.

Supplementary feeding and controlled egg incubation are required to ensure high success rates of healthy newborn lizards. As these hatch much earlier than animals in the wild, they also mature earlier and show much higher survival rates when they are released in the wild.


The reintroduction programme has undertaken 76 re-introductions to both dune and heathland sites in England and Wales (as of 2012). This has been undertaken to 11 counties, and restored the species to 7 counties where sand lizards had gone extinct. As a conservative estimate, this represents a 65% success rate (where a population has been reliably established), 12% initial success (further monitoring needed), 15% are currently ongoing, 4% failed (largely due to inadequate habitat management) and 4% unknown (often due to difficulties over access at sensitive sites). To date around 9000 animals have been released through the programme.

There are three 'races' of sand lizard in the UK (Dorset, Wealden and Merseyside) and all are represented in the reintroduction programme. Several new populations of the Dorset race have been introduced, helping to secure and expand its core range. The Wealden race is now restored to much of its former range. Since 1995 there have been releases of the Merseyside race, including extremely successful reintroductions into North Wales after an absence of more than 50 years.

Further new sites for all three races have been identified and the releases continue. The releases also offer a superb educational opportunity, giving local volunteers, enthusiasts and school groups the chance to see such a rare lizard. The associated media coverage also helps raise public awareness, not just about these beautiful animals and their plight, but about reptile and amphibian conservation as a whole.

All of this represents a fantastic outcome for sand lizards, and compares favourably with other reintroduction programmes. You can read more detail on the sand lizard programme in a chapter by ARC’s Rare Reptile Officer, Nick Moulton, in the IUCN publication “Global Reintroduction Perspectives: 2011

[Full reference: Soorae, P. S. (ed.) (2011). Global Re-introduction Perspectives: 2011. More case studies from around the globe. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group and Abu Dhabi, UAE: Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. xiv + 250 pp.]

Other conservation work

ARC are one of seven partners working with Natural England supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund. This funding helped 19 wildlife projects across England as part of the Back from the Brink programme, and helped the delivery of the Gems in the Dunes project on the Sefton coast. The sand lizard was one of the target species of our Gems in the Dunes project, which worked with land owners to reverse the process of over vegetation by rebalancing the landscape. The project was greatly successful, creating 289 sand scrapes for sand lizards, and restoring 4.5 hectares of dune slack habitat as well as clearing scrub from 11.5 hectares in order to create new habitat. Our Connecting the Dragons project continues this legacy with further reintroductions, and outreach work with national media.

Continuing work

ARC continues to monitor and manage the habitat for sand lizards on our reserves, involve sand lizards in our communications and outreach and undertake advocacy work to encourage policies and practice beneficial to sand lizards. For example, we have worked with Natural England to review the contribution of the protected site (SSSI) series to sand lizard conservation, and made recommendations for improvement. Sand lizards are also part of ARC's Biodiversity Action Plan. Our past projects involving sand lizard breeding and reintroduction have continued their legacy and breeding and reintroduction continues


Our work on sand lizards has been supported by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. Much of this work is done in partnership with organisations such as ARG UK, the RSPBForestry CommissionDefence Infrastructure Organisation, the Zoological Society of LondonChester ZooMarwell Wildlife, independent herpetologists, and numerous land owners.