Ask most people and they’ll tell you there are no lizards in Northern Ireland. But they’d be wrong. St Patrick might have managed to drive the snakes off the island but he overlooked the common lizard.
But because Ireland’s only native reptile is so shy and elusive, the public perception is that the common lizard is one of those exotic species which are only found across the water.
Indeed, one member of the public who found a lizard in the Belfast Hills recently handed it in to National Trust warden Dermot McCann, believing it had escaped from a pet-owner.
“I had to tell her to let it go again,” he said.
But new research published by scientists at Queen’s University reveals that the lizard may be more common than previously believed — in fact, it has been spotted in every county in Northern Ireland.
Conservation efforts have suffered in the past because scientists simply didn’t know where the lizards were and how well they were doing.
One of the reasons why this information was so scarce was that on many occasions the lizards were mistaken for smooth newts. It was also thought that lizards occurred mainly around the coast.
However, the QUB research on sightings records dating back to 1905 reveal that there could well be large populations of lizards in upland areas such as the Antrim plateau and the Mournes.
The paper, in Amphibia-Reptilia, revealed that lizards were sighted in heathlands, coastal habitats and bog — and were even spotted in non-native conifer forests.
Large areas of suitable habitat still exist in the Sperrin mountains, Mourne mountains, Antrim plateau, Slieve Beagh uplands and west Fermanagh, but habitats in lowland areas are much more fragmented, including some coastal areas, such as Murlough dunes in Co Down, the Peatlands Park in Co Armagh and the Magilligan and Downhill dunes.
The paper’s authors — Aodan Farren, Paulo Prodohl, Peter Laming and Neil Reid — say many sightings are clustered in areas which attract summer visitors, such as the north Antrim coast, suggesting there could be many more lizard colonies living in less-visited areas.
But they warn that lowland raised bog has declined from 25,000 hectares to 2,000 since the start of the 19th century, while sand dune systems are also threatened by sea level rise, human recreation, over-grazing and invasive species — so the uplands are now the main stronghold for lizards.
The authors said: “In Northern Ireland, upland heath and coastal dunes are of major conservation concern and are under continued threat of destruction.
“Establishment of an ecological network to preserve connectivity of remaining heath and bog will not only benefit remaining populations of common lizard but biodiversity in general,” the authors advise.”