I HAVE been fascinated with snakes and lizards ever since I was a child. Part of the attraction was undoubtedly fear: memories of dreams or nightmares of being trapped in a pit of poisonous snakes still emerge from time to time.
British reptiles are even more fascinating, perhaps because we don’t equate these climes with animals that require the warmth from the sun to get them up and running or slithering each day. They have adapted to this very problem by hibernating during the winter months, shutting down in a physiological sense until ambient temperatures make it possible for their metabolism to support a more active lifestyle.
The other lure of British reptiles is that you very rarely get to see them. In contrast, go on any package holiday to Spain and lizards and geckos will abound, seeking shelter and food amidst the abandoned building sites of the Costa whatever, no doubt benefiting greatly from the habitats provided by the half-built apartments and associated scrubland characteristic of the recession. But how often do you see a wild reptile in Britain? “Not very often,” is the answer.
When we were kids I regularly went hunting for slow worms (a lizard that has given up its legs through evolution) on an old railway cutting not far from our house. We would turn over rocks and bricks along the embankment and never failed to find one of these strangely metallic-looking creatures, the rapid wriggling and slithering when first exposed to the light never failed to send a tiny burst of adrenaline and fear through my body in case it was a snake.
I remember too on holiday in Wales summoning up the courage to catch my first wild grass snake, egged on by my older brother who stood well back and assured me it wasn’t an adder, though I still have no confidence that he was speaking from a position of knowledge.
And then there was my first lizard: a sand lizard as it happens, on a sandy, gorse-strewn bank that ran along one side of the campsite in Dorset where we were staying.
It was a beautifully marked creature, a female, tawny brown in colour with darker brown and white markings. We saw numerous sand lizards during our stay but I knew that nationally they had become a rarity, driven out by habitat destruction on a large scale. Sand lizards are creatures of open heathland that modern farming and land usage had no place for and this part of Dorset was one of its last strongholds.
Back then the long-term outlook for the sand lizard was not encouraging. Grants for reclaiming land and intensifying agriculture for increased food production were very much the norm, and it seemed that soon nowhere would be as it had been for the last few hundred years.
Thankfully, we now appear to live in more enlightened times (though there are occasions that cause me to doubt this), and the protection and/or restoration of habitat has vastly increased currency in the political arena.
As an example it was recently reported that there is a scheme under way to reintroduce sand lizards to several suitable sites in Surrey, Dorset and Wales.
For this to even be contemplated means that enough habitat has been secured or restored to give the programme at least a reasonable chance of success, good news for sand lizards and all the other species that thrive in this type of landscape.
The plan is that 400 captive bred sand lizards of three or four weeks of age will be released. A survival rate of 10-20% to a breeding age of three years is anticipated and this would leave enough individuals to start out on the path of sustainability.
If the project is successful, then the sight of sand lizards might become more commonplace throughout the southern counties of England and further afield in Wales.
Given time you might not have to go to Spain to guarantee seeing a wild lizard.