The ‘tail’ of Ireland’s only reptile

I GOT an excited email the other day from a neighbour who was planting trees and saw a strange animal.

Two excellent photographs arrived in my in-box and they confirmed the animal was a male common lizard.

The common lizard, also called the viviparous lizard, is the only reptile in Ireland. Years ago, a legless lizard, called a slow-worm, was released illegally in the Burren and may still survive there — if anyone knows, tel me — but the common lizard is our only native reptile.

They hibernate, but emerge remarkably early in the year, over the next few weeks, depending on ambient temperature. Ireland is far north for a reptile, and when they emerge they are cold and sluggish. They bring up their body temperature rapidly by basking on, for example, a sun-warmed rock that is close to cover so they can escape if a predator appears.

Because of the sluggishness and the need to bask in the sun, this is the best time of year to check if there are any lizards in your neighbourhood. Although there is a lack of formal research in Ireland about this animal, they live in a wide range of habitats. Most of the specimens I have seen have been in coastal areas, but unpublished surveys carried out by the Irish Wildlife Trust, the most recent in 2004, give grassland as the commonest habitat type, followed by rural gardens.

The IWT surveys have been useful, but because the reports were submitted by the public — walkers and nature lovers — this may have skewed the results in favour of the places that walkers and nature lovers visit.

One of the pictures my neighbour sent showed part of the lizard’s belly. It was densely covered in black spots, so I knew it was a male — females have very few spots, or none. You may have to pick up a lizard to check. If you are handling one, bear two things in mind. Firstly, they are cold-blooded creatures and can suffer from thermal shock, if held too long in a warm hand. Secondly, they have a disconcerting defence mechanism that involves shedding their long tails. They eventually grow a new one, but it takes them a lot of effort and energy to do so.

Their alternative name, the viviparous lizard, refers to the females giving birth to live young rather than laying eggs, as most reptiles do. This is another adaptation to living in a cold place. Their range extends up to the Arctic Circle.

Nature table

HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera perclymenum)

One of the hedgerow plants that takes advantage of the slowly lengthening days and rising temperatures at this time of year is the honeysuckle. It bursts bud early so its bright green leaves, which become greyer as the year progresses, can utilise solar energy for a few weeks before the rest of the hedge comes into leaf. Honeysuckle, which is also called woodbine, is a deciduous vine and in mature woodland or a tall hedge can climb right up to the canopy, many metres above ground.

Some time towards the end of June the first flowers will appear — creamy coloured trumpets which, after pollination, turn yellow, often tinged with mauve or red. Towards evening these flowers emit a powerful and delicious scent. This is to attract large moths. The flowers are followed in autumn by clusters of red berries.


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