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Lakeland Lizards

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Lakeland Lizards

In a regular series, ALAN GANE MBE looks at the flora and fauna of the Lake District. This issue: lizards.

The two species of lizard to be found in the Lake District are the common, or viviparous lizard (Lacerta vivipara) and the slow worm (Anguis fragilis). Although perhaps not as common as its name suggests, the common lizard is to be seen from time to time in many parts of the Lakes and in a variety of habitats. For example, the writer has found them near the shore of Ennerdale Lake, in Eskdale, in Whinlatter Forest and even within 100ft or so of the summit of Grisedale Pike (2,593ft).

It measures some 14cm in length overall, including its long tail. The colouring consists of sandy and darker brown longitudinal stripes, with some spotting above, while the colour of the underside differs somewhat between the sexes. The underside of the male is yellow or orange with black spots, while that of the female is more varied, and while that too may be yellow or orange, it may also be grey-green or blueish, but with less spotting than the male. It also worth noting that, as in the case of the adder or viper, black examples are not entirely unknown. Common lizards are most usually seen basking in warm sunshine from May to September, in a variety of locations such as on dry stone walls, banks, gateposts, or simply on the ground. They are perfectly harmless, feeding on invertebrates such as spiders, insects and worms, each or which they catch by flicking out their tongue. About ten coppery young are produced at a time and, although in fact they are laid as eggs, hatching is virtually immediate, giving the impression that they are viviparous, ie. giving birth to ‘live’ or fully formed young.

If disturbed when basking, their movement can be very rapid indeed, vanishing into long grass, heather or similar cover. They are very sensitive indeed to movement, and any fast or heavy-footed approach will result in rapid disappearance. Anyone lucky enough to handle a lizard will find that it is extremely smooth to the touch and will undoubtedly note its very delicate feet. A lizard should not be held by the tail or it will be detached, the lizard will be gone in a flash and in time will grow a new tail. It falls prey to a number of predators, notably kestrel, buzzard, hedgehog and stoat for example, and once a colony is located, it is probably doomed.

The slow worm, on the other hand, is greyish brown and, being legless, is often mistaken for a snake. The fact that it is a legless lizard, rather than a snake, is proved by the presence of eyelids. It may be handled quite safely, is quite muscular and is likely to wrap itself around one's fingers and give quite a squeeze. It, too, will shed its tail to avoid capture. Unlike the common lizard, the slow worm prefers cool, damp places rather than basking in the sun. They, too, give rise to living young, which are a yellowish silver in colour with a dark stripe running the length of the body. They are the more commonly seen of the two in this country, and are the longest-living of all lizards; the age of 54 years has been reliably recorded, although the normal lifespan is around 15 years.

Both animals are well worth looking out for - good hunting!