Sands run out for lowland lizards Retreat of heaths hits sand lizard

NICHOLAS SCHOON

Environment Correspondent

The sand lizard takes its name from its habitat. In midsummer, females dig a shallow burrow in a patch of open, sunny sand and lay about eight eggs which hatch two months later. At this time of year, the lizards are underground and dormant. They will not emerge until March or April. A mild winter does not suit them because it makes them wake too early, leaving them vulnerable to damp.

Once widespread among lowland heaths and coastal dunes, they are down to about 6,000 breeding adults scattered among more than 100 colonies. Most are in the remaining Dorset heathlands, with a few found in Surrey and sand dunes on Merseyside.

Like nearly all endangered British species the main reason for their plight is the decline of their habitat. As well as patches of open sand, they need clumpy vegetation like old heather, up to a metre high.

This gives them the mix of sunshine, shade and cover they require as they scurry around in search of insects and spiders. Being cold blooded, they warm up by basking in sunshine then dash into the shade to avoid overheating.

Most of the lowland heaths have become fields, housing or forestry plantations.

In 1994 a three-year ''crash'' recovery programme was launched, led by the Herpetological Conservation Trust. Sand lizards have been reintroduced to Welsh sand dunes and sites in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.

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