Despite occurring widely across Europe and Asia, the sand lizard is threatened in the north western part of its range and had disappeared from much of its former habitat in England and Wales prior to concerted conservation efforts. Due to vast habitat loss, primarily during the twentieth century, natural populations were lost from eight counties in England and also Wales, only remaining in Merseyside, Surrey and Dorset. The species is now confined to dry lowland heath and dune habitats.
Since the late 1980s Marwell Wildlife, working in partnership with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), has managed a captive breeding programme to support reintroductions across Southern England. Over a quarter of a century, Marwell has bred and released nearly 2000 animals at 26 discrete locations, but this is the first time that it is to a site under Marwell’s direct conservation management.
The heathland site, owned by QinetiQ and managed by Marwell Wildlife, has been restored to favourable condition status following more than 20 years of targeted habitat restoration. Eelmoor Marsh SSSI supports a great diversity of habitats and protected species providing a refuge for over 400 species of conservation concern. The site is particularly important for populations of specialist flora and invertebrates including butterflies and dragonflies, but also forms part of the larger Thames Basin Heaths Special Protected Area (SPA) for birds, as it supports breeding pairs of woodlark Lullula arborea, Dartford warbler Sylvia undata and nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus.
Restoration of the heathland habitat has now created the suitable conditions to return the sand lizard to this landscape. The population will be closely monitored after their release by Marwell Wildlife and University of Southampton PhD student Rachel Gardner who is working hard to continually assess the existing reptile community on site and the habitat suitability.
Marwell Conservation Biologist Dr Martin Wilkie said: “This is a rare opportunity to monitor this cryptic species post-release, to try to understand its habitat requirements and survivorship. It will also be a chance to answer other fundamental questions, such as their behavioral ecology, on a site that we are directly managing, which is very difficult elsewhere.”
Over the next three years two more releases are planned at Eelmoor, completing the reintroduction for this site. The partnership between Marwell and ARC will continue, as well as the complementary research with the University of Southampton, which will enhance our best practice guidance, cementing our ecological understanding of this cryptic species.