Reintroducing the Sand Lizard to the Fylde Sand Dunes

Reintroducing the Sand Lizard to the Fylde Sand Dunes

Sand Lizard before re introduction.

© Jeff Gorse 

Over the last three years conservationists have been giving the UK's rarest lizard a helping hand. Captive bred sand lizards have been released on to the Fylde Sand Dunes as part of a long-term conservation project to restore the species’ status and historic range within the UK.

Over the last three years conservationists have been giving the UK's rarest lizard a helping hand. Captive bred sand lizards have been released on to the Fylde Sand Dunes as part of a long-term conservation project to restore the species’ status and historic range within the UK.

Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC), Fylde and Blackpool Councils, Fylde and North Merseyside Amphibian Groups (ARGs), Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Natural England have teamed up to safeguard the future of these magnificent lizards. 

Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Fylde and Blackpool Council and the Environment Agency have been working in Partnership since 2013 on the Starr Hill Sand Dunes Environmental Works. This project received approval from the Environment Agency for a grant in aid funding to undertake dune management work in line with the sand dunes management plan and as described in the Fylde Coast protection strategy for the policy of hold line. The plan includes dune accretion, habitat improvement and monitoring. 

The additional benefits of this project (in addition to coast protection) are that habitat is protected and created and this has led to the sand lizards being able to be reintroduced.  

In the UK, sand lizards only live on two rare habitats; sand-dune and lowland dry heath. Due to vast historic losses, and fragmentation of these habitats via development and land use change, the species has been lost from north and west Wales, Cheshire, Kent, Sussex, Berkshire, Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall. Native populations now only remain in Merseyside, Surrey, and Dorset - though even here, losses of 97%, 95% and 90% have occurred respectively.

Due to these losses, the sand lizard is part of the Amphibian and Reptiles Conservation’s Biodiversity Action Plan. This has three main aims - protect the sites as nature reserves where the species occurs, to manage these sites to maintain and restore suitable conditions for sand lizards and to re-introduce sand lizards to managed sites in their former historic range.

We have been part of the nationwide sand lizard breeding program for the last 8 years and along with other partners, we have been able to re-establish breeding colonies of the Merseyside race of SL at various sites in west Wales. We are now in our third year at our Fylde Coast dune system and it is great that we have witnessed breeding success at what is now the most northerly site in England.
Paul Hudson and Ray Lynch
Fylde Amphibian and Reptile Group

Currently there are two captive breeding centres for the Sefton sand lizards managed by Ray Lynch and Paul Hudson (Fylde and North Merseyside ARGs). These centres have outdoor enclosures that mimic the sand lizard's natural dune environment. The captive bred juveniles have been released on to the Fylde Sand Dunes in early September each year to allow the animals to gradually get used to their new home before they hibernate in October.

Over the last three years the team have released over 300 sand lizards on to the Fylde dunes. It has been a great project to be involved in and we have already had a success story with hatched eggs found in September 2019 proving that the conditions here can support a healthy population of sand lizards.
Andrew Mills, Sand dunes Area Conservation Ranger
Fylde Council
Two Sand Lizards

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 e.g. 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 – 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 twentieth 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 the United Kingdom’s Species Action Plan, which is trying to protect and restore the sand lizard’s status. This work is funded by Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Amphibian & Reptile Conservation.

Sand lizards are such amazing animals and it’s such a shame that their range has reduced due to habitat loss and fragmentation, hopefully projects such as this one on the Fylde dunes and across the UK can help boost their population. It’s been great to work with Paul and Ray who have done a fantastic job rearing the animals and passing their knowledge on to the rest of the team. It is an exciting time on the dunes, and I am looking forward to watching how the population develops.
Andrew Mills, Sand dunes Area Conservation Ranger
Fylde Council
Sand Lizard

Sand Lizard before its re-introduction.

© Amy Pennington

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED:
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation is a wildlife charity (Registered Charity 1130188) committed to conserving amphibians and reptiles, and saving the disappearing habitats on which they depend. Our vision will see amphibians and reptiles thriving in their natural habitats, and a society inspired and committed to their survival: www.arc-trust.org 

Amphibian & Reptile Groups of the United Kingdom are a network of wildlife volunteer groups concerned with the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in the United Kingdom. www.arg-uk.org 

Blackpool Council are a Local Authority and the lead partner of the Fylde Sand Dunes Steering group.

Fylde Council is the Local Authority and landowner, a member of Fylde Sand Dunes Steering group and leads on the practical conservation of the dunes.

Lancashire Wildlife Trust is the local wildlife trust who have been part of the Fylde Sand Dunes project leading on public engagement and advising on habitat management. 

Natural England is here to conserve and enhance the natural environment, for its intrinsic value, the well-being and enjoyment of people, and the economy. www.naturalengland.org.uk

Ginny Hinton, Natural England Area Manager

"This is a wonderful example of nature recovery in action. It’s great to have this iconic species back in Lancashire"

Alan Wright, Campaigns Manager (Lancashire Wildlife Trust)

'This is an example of how wildlife benefits from organisations working together and sharing expertise. The fact that sand lizards will be more abundant on such a busy area as the Fylde dunes is wonderful news and can only be good for local nature in general. What a brilliant project!’

 

Geoff Willetts, Senior Coast and Conservation Officer (Fylde Council)

"Fylde Council are proud to be part of such a fantastic project and are privileged to witness the sand lizards re introduction to our beautiful sand dunes here on the Fylde Coast."

Before the species can be re-introduced to a site it must be established that the species is not already present. Surveys over 5 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 i.e. 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 c.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.9000 animals) to both dune and heathland habitats to 12 Vice-Counties in England and Wales, in 7 of these counties the species had been lost.  

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