New Forest Reptile Centre

The New Forest Reptile Centre is open from Easter until the end of September from 10am – 4.30pm and is situated immediately off of the A35 about two miles west of Lyndhurst and clearly signposted. Entry is FREE and there is plenty of car parking space for which a donation is requested.

Reptile Centre 1The New Forest Reptile Centre was created in 1974, by Keeper Derek Thompson, who was then the occupant of Holiday Hill Cottage, the property situated next to the Reptile Centre.  His aim was to combine his personal enthusiasm for reptiles with the opportunity to educate the public about them by showing all the native species of reptile and amphibian together for the first time in the UK in simulated natural habitats. The centre is managed by the Forestry Commission, and staffed and maintained by volunteers

It is a unique place to visit to see close-up all the native snakes and lizards found in Britain. Specially created outdoor pens provide a natural home to the rare Sand Lizards and Smooth Snakes. The poisonous Adder which is common across the Forest can also be seen here along with Grass Snakes, Slow Worms, Common Lizards and our native amphibians. The centre actively encourages the conservation and re-introduction of these animals across the country – it operates a very successful captive breeding programme for Sand Lizards and Natterjack Toads which are released back into the wild.

Tip Reptiles are cold blooded creatures and are more likely to be active and visible at the Centre on warm sunny days.

Sand Lizards are a rare and endangered species preferring dry, open country. In Britain they are found only in the sandy heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, and the Lancashire coastal strip. They were extinct in the New Forest by 1970. Our captive breeding programme was set up by the Forestry Commission in 1985 in liaison with the British Herpetological Society. Breeding pairs were captured and bred at Marwell Zoo and the New Forest Reptile Centre and the young released onto selected sites. The program continues to be a success.

Reptile Centre 3The site is also shared with the RSPB who have a display plus a live webcam during spring and summer on a nest somewhere in the Forest. There is a large flat screen TV showing live and recorded footage from the nest, and another TV showing a film about other brilliant birds that nest in the New Forest. You can also use their telescopes to see how many different varieties of bird you can spot on their bird feeders.

On site there is also a picnic area in scenic surroundings among the trees and an easy way marked Forest walk, the Reptile Trail, which is a mile long circular route taking in some really impressive Douglas Firs, a pond and some peaceful forest glades – you may even spot some deer along the way. The Reptile Centre is also on the New Forest cycle network. Its an ideal spot with something of interest for the whole family.

Further information on British amphibians and reptiles and their captive breeding programmes can be found on the Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC) website. In addition Natural England have produced an excellent leaflet on “Reptiles in your Garden” which can be downloaded here.

The following short slideshow contains images of reptiles found at the centre.

The Call of the Wild
by Richard Daponte (Forestry Commission Ranger)

A question many people ask, when they visit the New Forest Reptile Centre, is whether the animals have babies and what we do with them.  Well, yes many of the residents do breed in the pods and for two of the species it’s all part of the plan. The common lizard and common toad breed and this simply keeps the pods as self contained colonies.  When the adders have babies we capture them the following spring and find suitable release sites in the wild.  However, there is no organised captive breeding release programme for adders, as fortunately at this stage they are not considered endangered, though there are occasional regional projects where they are scarce.  The two active breeding programmes the Reptile Centre does participate in are for the sand lizard and the natterjack toad.

These two creatures are amongst the rarest animals in the UK and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation trust (ARCtrust) directs ongoing projects to breed these species in captivity and then release the offspring in a structured way, to re-establish colonies in habitats where they have been lost.  At present the natterjacks at the Centre can only be released into one site, which happens to be 300 miles away in Cumbria, because this is where they originate genetically.  However, there is a slightly broader and more local choice for the sand lizards, which are reintroduced into sites across Hampshire and Dorset.

The national sand lizard translocation programme started in 1968 under the auspices of a conservation committee of the British Herpetological Society. There was real and present threat to the vulnerable heathland habitat then. The programme concentrated on establishing new colonies on habitats where the species was absent, using relocated breeding adults. By the 1990’s protection for many colonies was established and emphasis shifted to ‘topping up’ these colonies with captive bred young.  This was continued by a collection of conservation and zoo bodies and directed by the Herpetological Conservation Trust (now ARC).  Sites are established throughout England and Wales, from Dorset to Gwynedd to Penrith.

Our captive breeding vivarium, at the Reptile Centre, is linked to a private one at Holmsley, and is considered part of the Dorset group. Many of our animals are rescued from heath fires and brought to us by ARC.

By 2010, the whole project had released 9455 animals and the success rate continues to be high.  On average, up to this time, we were finding about 20 eggs per year.  When added to the Holmsley batch, this amounted to about 60 eggs and the hatching rate was very high.  In 2010 ARC brought us more viable females rescued from the fire at Godlingston. Since then we have had batches of about 100 eggs at the Centre and the hatching rate has continued to be extremely successful.  However, as we all know, 2012 has proved to be an awful year in terms of weather and the lizards have responded by simply not breeding at all.  A situation mirrored throughout all the UK vivaria.  We hope 2013 will see us returning to normal figures.

Last year, by contrast, was a good year and I was privileged to able to take part in the actual release of some of the young lizards by ARC at a relatively local site.  Indeed, this was to be a new release site for the lizards and that was Hengistbury Head.  This coastal reserve also happens to be our nearest re-colonised site for natterjack toads, so well worth a visit for all herpetological species.

Heathland sites in the New Forest are due to be ‘topped up’ in a few years time.  At present all information suggests that the colonies are active and stable.