A TOTAL of 80 of the UK's rarest reptiles have been released onto a Hampshire marsh.

Marwell Wildlife released the final 80 juvenile sand lizards, one the UK’s rarest reptiles, onto Eelmoor Marsh Site of Special Scientific Interest, near Farnborough, the last phase of a three-year release plan and research project.

Once common across heathlands of southern England, sand lizard numbers have decreased dramatically due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

They are now only found in a handful of heathland and dune sites in southern England, Wales and Merseyside.

The focus of the intensive three-year research, led by Rachel Gardner, PhD student from Marwell Wildlife and University of Southampton, has been monitoring the animals following their release.

Rachel’s research has included evaluating the behaviour, habitat use and survivorship of individuals, which are uniquely identifiable by their individual spot pattern.

The study has been able to directly observe differences in activity across age groups as well as gain insights into their establishment on site.

In 2018, as a first for the species following reintroduction, tiny radio tags weighing less than 0.3 grams were used to assess the animals’ activity within a complex microhabitat and build a clearer picture to help conserve this cryptic species.

Rachel said: “We have seen some unexpected behaviours, for example, some individuals travelled over a hundred metres away from the release site within just a couple of weeks.

"Considering the size of the animals [a few centimetres long] and the complexity of the heathland environment, this is quite a distance in such a short space of time.”

She added: “It’s been a privilege to work on this project and observe the sand lizards in such detail.

"Not only is Marwell Wildlife contributing to the wider reintroduction programme by breeding them in captivity for release into their natural environment, but we hope the research will help inform and make recommendations for the reintroduction protocol in the future, and therefore help optimise its conservation success.”

This year’s release brings the total count of sand lizards reintroduced to Eelmoor Marsh to over 240 individuals, with the aim to establish a self-sustaining population, at a site which would have fallen within the species’ indigenous range.