Over 40 common lizards, including 16 newborns, were recently spotted sun-bathing at Slievenacloy Nature Reserve in the Belfast Hills, in just three hours, by Philip McErlean.
Philip, from Belfast, took up surveying lizards across Northern Ireland in 2011, after retiring. Like most people, he spent most of his life blissfully unaware that they even existed.
Common or 'viviparous' lizards are the only reptile native to Ireland.
One of the ways they have adapted to survive in our cool climate is by hatching their eggs internally and giving birth to live young (viviparous) in late summer. They also hibernate during the winter.
“During the summer, there is a great boost to numbers, with lots of little dark-coloured, baby lizards making an appearance,” explained Philip. “This partly accounts for the large number seen on my recent visit to Slievenacloy. Last year, the poor spring and summer weather contributed to a huge drop in the birth rate.”
Slievenacloy Nature Reserve, managed by local conservation charity Ulster Wildlife, provides an ideal home for these secretive creatures – rough field margins and open sunny banks protected from grazing, and unimproved grassland providing a good supply of insects for them to eat.
Andy Crory, Nature Reserves Manager with Ulster Wildlife said, “We always knew this special grassland site was a real hotspot for common lizards, but this year’s numbers were pretty exceptional – a good sign that we’re providing suitable habitat conditions. Most people, when they saw the pictures, were really surprised to find out we have lizards living in Belfast - in fact, a few thought we’d actually released them!”
Unfortunately the welcome boost in numbers is probably only temporary as newborn lizards provide food for birds and other creatures. It has been estimated that more than 90% fail to make it through the first year.
The common lizard is a protected species in Northern Ireland and is threatened by loss of habitat, wildfires, scrub encroachment and overgrazing, particularly in the Belfast Hills.
To spot a lizard at Slievenacloy, chose a warmish day, find a south facing slope with patches of bare ground that warm up quickly, next to areas of cover into which the animal can flee if disturbed, and sit quietly and wait.
Elsewhere in Belfast, lizards can also be found at Divis, Black Mountain, Cave Hill and Ballyaghagan. They are also present in every county in Northern Ireland.
Find out more about Slievenacloy Nature Reserve and plan your visit.