09 11/09/2013

Rare sand lizards bred at Chester Zoo are released into the wild

  • Reptiles
  • Snakes and lizards
  • UK Wildlife

A group of sand lizards - one of Britain's rarest reptiles - are being released back into the wild.

Once commonly found on dunes and heathland, the reptiles became endangered after the gradual destruction of their habitats.
But 27 lizards, reared at Chester Zoo, will soon be returned to their native habitats in Talacre in North Wales.

It is part of special series of releases which will take place this week at seven sites across England and Wales, involving around 400 lizards which have been bred at a host of different breeding centres. The long-term aim of the conservation project is to restore the species to its historic range.

Sand lizards release - Chester Zoo

Chester Zoo’s specialist keeper, Isolde McGeorge, said:

“It's great to be able to play our part and help release these animals back into their natural habitat. It is habitat loss that has led to dwindling numbers of these important species and to see them back where they belong is very rewarding.

"The release of the lizards is the culmination of a lot of hard work and very successful breeding and reintroduction programmes and we hope eventually they will begin to colonise new areas themselves. It’s a big step forward for this great native species.”

Sarah Bird and Isolde McGeorge - Sand Lizard release

In the UK sand lizards only live on sand-dunes and lowland dry heath. But due to vast 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.

However sand lizards and their habitats are now protected by law and the reintroduction programme is slowly boosting their numbers.

The hatcheries at Chester Zoo are designed to closely mimic the lizard's natural environment. And after being reared by expert keepers for a number of weeks the captive bred juveniles are then released in early September to allow the animals to gradually get used to their new home before going into hibernation in October.

The zoo is working on the release with a number of volunteers, as well as Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC), Natural Resources Wales, Natural England and nine other breeding centres around the UK.

Rare sand lizard release - Chester Zoo

Jonathan Webster, ARC Chair of Trustees said "We are delighted with the success of the sand lizard re-introduction programme. So far the partnerships have instigated 74 re-introductions to both dune and heathland sites in 12 vice-counties and restored the species to 7 of these. 80% of these have been successful or going well and more are planned for the future."

Liz Howe of Natural Resources Wales said: "Wales has a stunning and varied coastline, which provides us with great opportunities to explore our country as well as providing homes to rare and important species like the sand lizard. This new sand lizard release site on the dunes at the end of the River Dee is an example of the high quality habitat we have on the Clwyd coastline, and will complete the re-introduction programme of this previously extinct species.

“The work we have done with the captive breeders, Chester Zoo, BHP, ARC and local volunteers, has been a great team effort over the last 18 years. The captive breeding stock which originated from the Lancashire dune populations has been carefully nurtured to provide young lizards for our re-introduction programme in north and west Wales."

Chester Zoo Keeper Isolde McGeorge with Sand Lizards