Monday, 17 September 2012

Rare Sand Lizards Released Back to the Wild at Farnham Heath

Today [Monday 17 September] conservationists are giving the UK's rarest lizard a helping hand, when 40 captive bred sand lizards will be released at the RSPB’s Farnham Heath nature reserve.

The release is the start of a long-term conservation project to restore the species to this part of its historic range.

The RSPB is working with Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC) and Natural England, the Government conservation authority, to safeguard the future of these magnificent lizards.

Due to vast habitat losses across the UK, sand lizards now only occur naturally in Surrey and Dorset where it lives on sandy heathland, and further north in Merseyside where it is confined to coastal sand dune systems.

Sand lizards are believed to have been lost from the Farnham Heath site when the land was planted up with a commercial conifer crop after the Second World War.

Since 2004 the RSPB has restored over 70 ha of heathland at Farnham Heath and much of this is now in a suitable condition to support this beautiful animal once again.

Mike Coates, the RSPB site manager for Farnham Heath said: “There have always been sand lizards present on Gong Hill, which is next to our reserve, but they were confined to a very small pocket of suitable habitat.

Once our heathland restoration work started to take effect, they did spread onto our land west of Old Frensham Road. However, even minor roads can act as a barrier, and, despite searching, there was no sign of them on the remainder of our reserve, east of the road.

So we decided that we should use animals from the ARC's on-going captive breeding programme, to establish a second population on the eastern part of the reserve.”

ARC, under licence from Natural England, maintain a captive breeding population of animals, originally drawn from sites in Surrey, to provide a source of young lizards that can be re-introduced to areas where suitable habitat has been created.

Rob Free, from ARC said: “The superb restoration and management of the Farnham Heath site has allowed good recovery of many of our native heathland species.

It has also allowed us this opportunity to help restore the sand lizard’s former historic range through this joint partnership re-introduction. We believe this has every chance of success as the site is very well managed to cater for all heathland species and is ideal for this particular species’ habitat requirements.”

This is the start of a three year project, with further releases of 40-50 juvenile lizards planned for each autumn.

The UK’s largest lizard, reaching up to 20cm in length, sand lizards are active from late March through to late October; with the males emerge from hibernation first followed by younger animals then females.

Mike Coates added: “During the breeding season the male's sides become highly coloured, with some individuals turning almost completely bright green.

We hope they will thrive here at Farnham Heath, and that visitors might be able to glimpse the spectacular males basking alongside paths in years to come.”

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