UK Arson Costs Reptile Lives

Where there is a will there is hope

Article & photographs by Nick Dobbs, Dorset, UK

With only 6 native reptile species, the British Isles would be hard pushed to describe itself on the world stage as a herpetologist’s “dream ticket”. Nevertheless, what we have is precious to these shores and all 6 species are rightly afforded legal protection.

Female Adder Courtesy of Nick Dobbs

Female Adder Courtesy of Nick Dobbs

Here in East Dorset on the edge of the New Forest, we can count ourselves blessed as one of very few counties in the UK where all 6 species are found, namely:

Adder (Vipera berus)
Grass Snake (Natrix natrix helvetica)
Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)
Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis)
Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

With suitable habitats afforded protected status in the UK becoming increasingly fragmented due to housing development, imagine the horror of seeing 175 acres (100 soccer pitches) of prime corridor dry and wet heathland near Christchurch set ablaze by arsonists on 31st March 2015.

Could any reptiles survive such devastation?

Before and After the Fire

Before and After the Fire

With trepidation, scores of volunteers led by experienced licensed handlers began scouring the charred landscape in the hope of saving at least a few fortunate animals before the birds of prey got to them first. Whilst some dead specimens were found, over the following fortnight more than 450 reptiles representing all 6 species were recovered and relocated.

So what was the seemingly miraculous survival attributed too?

In part – luck. It seems that whilst the consequence of the fire is devastating on the eye, the blaze fanned by a strong breeze did not deliver a deep burn and the majority of reptiles were able to escape subterranean into pockets of soil and native grass root structure. On emerging from their temporary bolt holes with their conspicuous green colouration against a background of black scorched ground, male Sand Lizards and Grass Snakes are particularly vulnerable to Buzzards and Kestrels. Scores of Adder (Britain’s only venomous snake) were recovered and often proved somewhat challenging to extricate from their temporary burrows. The higher than expected congregation of Adders is perhaps due to the time of year – having recently emerged from their hibernacula. In contrast, only 3 live and 1 dead Smooth Snake were recovered of– by far the UK’s rarest and most endangered reptile.

Sand Lizard (Male)

Sand Lizard Courtesy of Nick Dobbs

So what does the future hold for the area?

Typically after a burn of this magnitude, the site will take 15-20 years to fully recover its former glory and be suitable heathland habitat for the reptiles to naturally repopulate. In the short-term and due to the necessity of relocation, it is highly probable that this localised population’s capacity to breed this year will be significantly affected.

Albeit under awful circumstances, it was a privilege to have been able to participate in helping to save these wonderful creatures in the hope that they will once again reclaim this small but important corner of England.