Thursday, 3 September 2009

400 rare lizards released into wild as part of ‘rescue operation’ for UK’s reptiles and amphibians

Almost 400 of the UK’s rarest lizards are being carefully prepared for release into the wild at sites across England and Wales, starting today at a nature reserve in Surrey, owned by the National Trust.

The coordinated action forms part of a major ‘rescue operation’ to save the UK’s threatened reptiles and amphibians - frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards.

The sand lizard Lacerta agilis is the UK’s largest and rarest lizard. The two inch long baby sand lizards released today have been reared in special hatcheries, prepared by zoos and experts from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

The male sand lizard’s striking green flanks were once a common sight in certain parts of England and Wales. But massive loss of heathland and sand dunes in the twentieth century led to widespread extinctions. Sand lizards were lost entirely from Kent, Sussex, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Devon, Cornwall, Cheshire and north and west Wales. In addition, conservationists estimate that over 90% of suitable habitat in Merseyside, Surrey and Dorset has been lost.

Over the coming fortnight, starting today, coordinated releases will see them return to their former habitats, now that both the animals and their habitats are protected under wildlife law.

“It’s great to see them going back, now safely protected, where they belong.” said Nick Moulton of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, the wildlife organisation coordinating the lizard releases.

“We are constantly delighted that partnerships between wildlife organisations and land-owners can deliver such success, and often quickly.”

David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust, said: "The return of sand lizards to this part of Surrey is a real success story allowing visitors to get closer to these special creatures. We've been able to create the right habitat conditions for this rarest of lizards to flourish and hopefully this can be replicated at sites across England and Wales."

Government wildlife agencies Natural England and Countryside Council for Wales are working in partnership with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation to make the lizard releases go smoothly at other sites in the UK.

Special permissions will see the lizards carefully released at five nature reserves overall, managed by the Countryside Council for Wales, Dorset Wildlife Trust, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and Surrey Heath Borough Council.

At some of these release sites local schools and community groups will be invited to take part in special ‘release ceremonies’.

“These sand lizard releases are just one part of our 133 actions, which in partnership, will help us turn back the clock on amphibian and reptile declines in the UK.” said Dr Tony Gent, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation’s Joint Chief Executive.

The 133 point Action Plan for saving amphibians and reptiles has been put together by a partnership involving government bodies - the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage - and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, a charity recently formed by the merger of charities Froglife and The Herpetological Conservation Trust.

“Today’s event demonstrates the wide variety of very active stakeholders and partners required to make actions count.” added Dr Gent. “We hope similar partnerships will be as effective for the other actions outlined in these combined Action Plans.”

The 133 actions to reverse declines in the UK’s reptiles and amphibians include: monitoring species’ distributions, enhancing volunteer networks, undertaking research, and encouraging land-owners to include features (like ponds or basking areas) to help amphibians and reptiles thrive. Some of the work is well underway, while other actions will take many years and additional funding to come to fruition.

Together the actions will help achieve the goals of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, a major initiative aiming to get everyone working together for threatened wildlife.

Dr Tom Tew, Chief Scientist for Natural England said: "Today’s release marks the next step in a recovery project to restore these fascinating creatures to their former range. Reptiles and amphibians are coming under pressure from an increasing number of factors including habitat loss, disease and a future of climate change."

"This important reintroduction programme is an example of the action that must be taken to reverse the decline in England’s biodiversity and to conserve the habitats that our unique wildlife relies upon."

Photo credit: Fred Holmes

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