Lacerta agilis
The Sand Lizard
 
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The sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) is one of three lizards and six reptiles native to the British Isles. They are largely confined to sandy areas of southern Britain but are also found amongst the sand dunes of the Mersey coast.

It is ironical that the rare sand lizard is preyed upon by that other reptilian rarity, the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca). Both species are concentrated in Dorset which holds an estimated 80% of the UK population of sand lizards and 90% of its smooth snakes.

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Individuals can grow to a length of up to 20-25cm (8-10 inches) from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail. The colour is variable but sand lizards are usually greyish-brown with numerous darker brown blotches on the body. The sides of the males are a greenish colour which becomes more pronounced during the mating season.

The sand lizard is distinguished from common lizards (Lacerta vivipara) by its larger size, a stouter outline and its blacks markings which can often be used to identify individuals of the species.

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The only egg-laying lizard of the three British species, the sand lizards need sand or sandy soil in which to bury their eggs. They live on mature dry heathland or areas of coastal sand dunes with a dense cover of marram grass.

The lizards require bare sand in which to lay their eggs and, likewise, bare soil on which to bask and suitable vegetation for hunting in as well as hiding from would-be predators. The correct management of these features is very important for conservation of this species.


The vegetation of the sand lizard's habitat must provide varied conditions not only to allow these carnivores to hunt but also to provide shade from the sun to regulate their body temperature and provide cover from predators.

They favour dry heathland, particularly where there are abandoned mineral workings, boundary banks or other disturbances have left the bare sandy soil exposed.

Suitable breeding habitats for the sand lizard tend to be localised. They are very territorial and strongly attached to their burrows giving rise to their being often described as living in 'colonies.

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The sand lizard was once found throughout the heaths and sand dunes of southern England, in north Wales and north-western England. The species has disappeared from much of its natural range and is now restricted to scattered populations occuring in Dorset (which is estimated to contain about eighty per cent of the population of the British Isles) and Surrey heathland in the south of England and an isolated colony on Lancashire's Sefton Coast.

It is estimated that some ninety per cent of Britain's smooth snake population is concentrated in Dorset.

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The lizards usually live either in a burrow which they dig into the ground, in cracks and crevices, or underneath the covering vegetation. They may often be found in small colonies on banks and slopes.

Like all reptiles, sand lizards are cold-blooded and bask in the warmth of the morning sun until they are warm enough to be fully active. They then move into the vegetation to hunt their prey. Late in the afternoon, the lizards return to their burrows to remain inactive throughout the cold of the night.

Sand lizards are highly territorial and an individual may occupy the same small area of ground throughout its life.

They hibernate in a state of torpor for six months of the year during the winter in their burrows emerging when the milder weather arrives between late March and early May.

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Sand lizards are carnivores and prey upon invertebrates including most insect species such as beetles as well as spiders, slugs and worms. When food is freely available, the lizards will consume vast quantities. They will sometimes devour their own young.

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Sand lizards are the only species of the three which are native to the British Isles which lay eggs rather than give birth to live young. After the animals emerge in the spring, the males turn a bright green colour to attract the females. The eggs are laid in late spring in burrows in carefully selected areas of exposed sand where the sun can incubate them. A southerly aspect is preferred and it makes no difference how these patches of bare sand are created, whther 'natural' or by man's disturbance.

The young lizards emerge around May - about ten weeks after they were laid - and disperse amongst the heather to feed up on invertebrates before their winter hibernation which is entered later than by the adults.

Suitable breeding habitats tend to be localised giving rise to the territorial lizards being described as living in 'colonies.

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FIRE
sand lizards are very territiorial animals and, reluctant to depart from their territory, will hide in their burrows during a fire. Deprived of ground-cover by a fire, they become easy prey for predators when they emerge into the scorched landscape.

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Sand lizards (Lacerta agilis), like all six native British species of reptiles, are protected by law in Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and the Conservation (Natural Habitats & c.) Regulations 1994 to help counteract the decline of all the species.

It is a criminal offence to intentionally kill, injure, sell or advertise to sell any sand lizard. It is also an offence under the Act to possess, handle, capture or disturb them.

Collection of the reptiles and their eggs for the pet trade in the past has severely depleted local populations.
Some exceptions are provided for by the act but these relate only to those bred and kept in captivity or other extraordinary circumstances.

The sand lizard is also is protected by European legislation through the Council of Europe's Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (otherwise known as the 'Bern Convention') of 1979 and by the European Union's Habitats and Species Directive of 1992.

Previous population losses have primarily been caused by the loss of the lizards' habitat or the lack of or inappropriate management of such habitats. There are also considerable pressures on the habitats favoured by the lizard in terms of public access. Many of these threats to the species are on-going.

The sand lizard continues to be threatened and has been included in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme. The work under the programme is led by the Herpetological Conservation Trust with considerable support from such voluntary organizations as the British Herpetological Society and the Wildlife Trusts as well as bodies such as local councils and and Forest Enterprise (Forestry Commission).

The objectives of the Species Recovery Programme as regards the sand lizard are to:

  • Maintain and enhance existing populations
  • Re-establish populations on representative habitats in the former range of the species
  • Provide a better understanding of the management needs and to disseminate this information
  • Promote the future conservation of the species.

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    Time-Line

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    1979Council of Europe\'s Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (otherwise known as the Bern Convention)
    1981Wildlife and Countryside Act
    1992European Union\'s Habitats and Species Directive
    1994Conservation (Natural Habitats et c.) Regulations

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    HEATHLAND
     

    Links to Other Sites

    . . . . . the inclusion of these links to other sites is for the interest and convenience of visitors to this site only and does not imply any endorsement of the products or services offered by the individuals or organisations involved nor the accuracy of the information contained therein . . . . .

    British Reptiles
      The Wildlife Trusts
    The Sefton Coast: The Beautiful Sand Lizard
      Keith Corbett, Herpetological Conservation Trust
    UK Action Plan
      UK Biodiversity
     

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    Links to Other Pages on this Site

    DORSET
      Agglestone Heath (National Trust)
      St Catherine's Hill, Christchurch
      Studland Peninsula (National Trust)
      Town Common, Christchurch
     

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    Bibliography

    Recommend a Book for this Page

    Snakes and Lizards
      by T.Langton, Whittet Books (1989)  


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