DOZENS of rare lizards are being released into the wild to help them back from the brink of extinction.

Sand lizards, which are native to Wales, once thrived on dunes and heathland through Britain but have since disappeared from many areas due to the gradual destruction of its habitats.

However, 46 of the rare reptiles, reared in special hatcheries at Chester Zoo, will be released in Ynyslas, near Aberystwyth. The hatcheries are designed to closely mimic the lizard's natural environment. A private breeder from Blackpool will also
be releasing a further 14.

Specialist keeper Isolde McGeorge said: "It’s great to be involved with projects like the Sand Lizard Recovery Programme and to be able to help release these animals back into their natural habitat. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and some serious commitment from an awful lot of people.

“As far as we are aware, they became extinct in Wales around 60 years ago.”

According to the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation group (ARC), the lizard was lost altogether from a number of counties including Cheshire, Cornwall, Kent, Sussex, and North and West Wales.

More than 90 per cent of suitable habitat has also vanished from Merseyside, Surrey and Dorset.

Frogs, toads, lizards, snakes and newts have all been affected by the loss of their habitats, often because of building developments, changes to agricultural practice and the planting of forests.

But sand lizards and their habitats, are now protected by law.

Miss McGeorge added there were a number of factors in their decline. "Many reptiles and amphibians have come under pressure from all sorts of factors including habitat degradation, predation of both offspring and adults by cats and magpies and the continued sprawl of conurbation," she said.

"But, through important breeding and reintroduction programmes like this, we are slowly and surely getting them back into the areas where historically they used to live.

“It’s just one example of the action that must be taken to reverse the decline in Britain’s biodiversity and to conserve the habitats that our unique wildlife relies upon."

The zoo is working on the release with a number of volunteers, as well as Natural England, the Herpetological Conservation Trust, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation charity (ARC) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW).

CCW senior reserve manager for Dyfi National Nature Reserve, Mike Bailey, said: “Ynyslas dunes are still actively growing with lots of marram grass and patches of bare sand, making them ideal habitat for sand lizards. With luck visitors will be able to see a basking sand lizard here in the future, but common lizards also occur in the dunes so careful observation will be called for.”