Rare sand lizards released back to Fylde sand dunes

Steve Davis

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 the Fylde Sand Dunes as part of a long-term conservation project to restore the species’ status and historic range within the UK.

We've teamed up with Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC), Fylde and Blackpool Councils, Fylde and North Merseyside Amphibian Groups (ARGs), and Natural England to safeguard the future of the magnificent sand lizard on our local coastline.

The reintroduction began with the start of the Starr Hill Sand Dunes Environmental Works in 2013: a partnership with Fylde and Blackpool Council and the Environment Agency, with approval from the Environment Agency for a grant in aid funding to undertake dune management work in line with the sand dunes management plan. The works included habitat improvement and monitoring, which meant we were able to restore the dune system to a fit state for sand lizards to be reintroduced.

A young sand lizard sat on someone's hand during the Lancashire Wildlife Trust reintroduction

Young sand lizard

In the UK, sand lizards only live on two rare habitats: sand dune systems and lowland dry heath. Due to vast historic losses and the fragmentation of these habitats via development and land use change, sand lizards have 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 per cent, 95 per cent and 90 per cent have occurred respectively.

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

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 lizards natural dune environment; preparing them for release.

The captive-bred juveniles have been released onto 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.

A Lancashire Wildlife Trust Project Officer holding a sand lizard ready for release onto the Fylde dunes

A juvenile sand lizard gets ready for release onto the Fylde sand dunes

Our Communications Manager, Alan Wright, Campaigns Manager, said:

"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), said:

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

Andrew Mills, Sand Dunes Area Conservation Ranger (Fylde Council), added:

"Over the last three years the team have released over 300 sand lizards onto 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. 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 of 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."

Paul Hudson and Ray Lynch of Fylde Amphibian and Reptile Group said:

"We have been part of the nationwide sand lizard breeding program for the last eight years and along with other partners, we have been able to re-establish breeding colonies of the Merseyside race of sand lizards 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."

Ginny Hinton, Natural England Area Manager, said:

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

Jonathan Webster, ARC Chair of Trustees, added:

"We are delighted with the success of the sand lizard reintroduction programme. So far the partnerships have instigated 76 reintroductions to both dune and heathland sites in 12 vice-counties and restored the species to seven of these. 80 per cent of these have been successful or are going well, and more are planned for the future.

Cllr Jim Hobson, Blackpool Council’s Cabinet Member responsible for the Environment and Climate Change, said:

"It’s been a pleasure for Blackpool Council to be involved in this project. We are so proud to have worked in conjunction with such fantastic partners to protect the status of this wonderful species."

We have high hopes for this reintroduction as the site is naturally suitable for sand lizards and well managed by our Fylde Sand Dunes Project, plus its partners. Ongoing surveys by trained site staff, volunteers and Amphibian & Reptile Groups of the UK will let us know how the species is doing in the long term, and when they start to colonise new areas.

Learn more about the Fylde Sand Dunes Project