UK's rarest lizards return to sand dunes

Juvenile sand lizard released

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Rare sand lizards have been released on sand dunes in North Wales in a bid to revive ailing populations.

Seventy juveniles have been released on the Flintshire coast and a total of 400 will be reintroduced through the week to sites in Merseyside, Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset.

The sand lizards were bred at 10 specialist breeding centres, including Chester Zoo, over the summer.

The animals have suffered dramatic declines due to habitat loss.

Native populations now only remain in Merseyside, Surrey, and Dorset but even in these areas populations have dropped by 90% or more.

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The reintroductions are co-ordinated by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC Trust) as part of a recovery programme that has been running since 1994.

Sand lizards only live on coastal dunes and heathland habitats, both of which have become increasingly fragmented through agriculture, housing and leisure developments.

The adult lizards can reach 20cm in length, making them the UK's largest lizard species.

During the breeding season in early summer, males adopt eye-popping green colouration to attract mates.

To date, approximately 9,000 of the animals have been reintroduced to suitable habitat around England and Wales by the recovery programme.

According to Jonathan Webster, ARC Chair of Trustees, "80% of these have been successful or going well and more are planned for the future."

The lizards are protected by law and work to restore and maintain their habitat has been undertaken as part of the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan.

Chester Zoo reptile keeper Isolde McGeorge has been involved with the reintroduction project since it began and rears the lizards on the zoo's replica sand dune system.

Sand lizard Chester Zoo bred 26 juvenile lizards for the release
Replica sand dune at Chester Zoo The zoo's replica sand dune uses plants licensed from nature reserves to provide a natural environment
Sand lizards with beetles To build up their mass they were fed invertebrates such as beetles and crickets
Chester Zoo keeper Isolde McGeorge and head of field conservation and research, Dr Roger Wilkinson with a sand lizard Keeper Isolde McGeorge and head of field conservation and research, Dr Roger Wilkinson released the lizards
Sand lizard released in North Wales The released lizards are around a month old
Male sand lizard Adult males adopt bright colours in the breeding season

"It's absolutely perfect weather because the sun's been out long enough for the sand to get nice and warm. The sand lizards are actually basking a little bit on the sand," she said during the release in Flintshire.

The lizards are native to the North Wales coastline and once occurred throughout neighbouring Cheshire too.

"The sand dune system is perfect for them because the marram grass and the lyme grass gives structural integrity to the sand that the sand lizards require for their egg laying and incubation," explained Ms McGeorge.

"They lay [eggs] in sandy patches within the dunes and the lyme and marram grass which keeps the dune system together allows them to burrow down and beneath."

Sand lizard released onto grasses in sand dune habitat The sand lizard is Britain's only egg-laying lizard

The young sand lizards hatch out in captivity in August and are released a month later once they have had the chance to increase their body mass.

"Juvenile sand lizards don't tend to hibernate until a month after the adults - the adults have already gone down for this year, it's very rare to see any out and about now," Ms McGeorge said.

"The youngsters don't tend to go down until October so it gives them a little bit of time to get their bearings."

Releasing the lizards at this time is thought to give them an advantage because they will be more familiar with their surroundings when they come out of hibernation.

"25-30% of captive bred individuals will survive whereas only about 5% of the wild sand lizard population will survive," Ms McGeorge said.

The lizards face many threats including plants encroaching on and destabilising the dune habitat, erosion through leisure activities such as off-road cycling and predation by magpies and cats.

"There's always that concern: how many are going to survive, will they be ok, will they manage? We're never going to know the answer to those questions so all we can do is put in our best efforts and hope we can do something that's going to conserve the species long term," said Ms McGeorge.

"I feel very very happy to be releasing them onto the dunes, it's a very exciting project."

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