Identification

In the UK there are three native species of lizard which you may find in your garden: the common (or viviparous) lizard (Lacerta vivipara), the slow worm (Anguis fragilis) and the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) (endangered species).

Slow worms (covered in a separate profile) are the most common of the lizards to be found in your garden (often mistaken for grass snakes as they are leg-less lizards, resembling a snake). The common lizard is the next likely species to be found although only if you live close to a particular habitat. The sand lizard is very rare and only present in a few counties in the UK so is unlikely to be encountered. Here we will talk about the common lizard.

A lot of people who think they have seen lizards, will have actually seen newts, which are similar in appearance but are very slow moving on land and during the day hide under logs and in thick grass, and will barely move if disturbed. Lizards in comparison move very quickly, and will bask in the open in bright sunshine during summer months.

Common lizards are identified by their brown to grey skin (but are extremely variable in colour) with darker markings along the back bordered with white or yellow. Males tend to be 'spotty' and females tend to be 'stripy'. Young may be all brown or black. The undersides of this species allows you to sex them - males have yellow to orange coloured skin dotted with black spots, and females are yellowish grey with no spots.

Size

Adult: 13 -15cm (5-6in)

Distribution

This species is widespread throughout Britain, and is the only native lizard found in Ireland.

Status

Although this species is not threatened, studies show a decline in numbers in recent years, so it is protected in Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act which means it is illegal to kill, injure or sell a common lizard. It is also protected under the Bern Convention.
Threats of the common lizard are largely due to man, for example loss of their habitats and habitat fragmentation due to urbanisation and agricultural intensification. To attempt to halt their decline, they have been added to biodiversity action plans as one of the priority species, which means that their habitats are specifically conserved or encouraged.

Habitat preference

This lizard is found in a variety of habitats and it tends to occur in dry areas, but also frequents wet heaths. Main habitats include commons, moorland, heaths, sea cliffs, dry stone walls and embankments, woodland edge, rough grassland, derelict urban areas and railway banks. Any gardens which back onto or contain any of these habitats could contain a common lizard.

Where to find them in the garden

At night they can be found hiding beneath large stones, logs or boulders, in cracks in the ground or in small burrows abandoned by other animals. During the day they will return to these areas during cold or very hot weather or to avoid danger. Hibernating lizards are often found in communal groups and are often at or above ground level.

Role in the garden

These lizards spend a lot of time basking in the sun to warm up enough to be able to hunt, particularly on cool or overcast days. This means they rely on open areas within range of a refuge,and gardens can often provide this.

They hunt in vegetation for invertebrates such as insects, spiders, snails and earthworms, which are stunned by shaking the prey in their jaws and then swallowing it whole. Common lizards are vulnerable to a number of predators including domestic cats, foxes, crows, jays and hawks as well as other reptiles.