In the deep south of the Isle of Wight can be found the town of Ventnor – the living proof of the hypothesis that genial eccentrics gravitate southwards. This genteelly decaying Victorian seaside town, with its Mediterranean microclimate, has always been a little more out-of-the-way than the bustling resorts elsewhere on the Island. It’s now enjoying a bit of a revival, featuring in various Sunday supplement ‘100 Great Places To Buy Your Second Home’ guides, and so on. On Easter Sunday afternoon The Ranger and a couple of friends took the opportunity of the spring sunshine to take a stroll around the back streets of the town in search of one of Ventnor’s most celebrated residents: the Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis). It did not take long to find a good spot – on the steep south-facing rocky walls of Ventnor the little green beasts abound. Within a few minutes dozens of individuals were seen on one rocky wall alone. It seemed that walls with a bit of vegetation around were a lot better for lizards than those with tarmac or concrete below them: presumably because the lizards like to get shelter and food from the plant cover.
The lizards varied in length from perhaps 50mm (including the very long tail) to about 200mm. Many were brown, not dissimilar to the common lizard, but some were quite definitely not: showing spectacular green colouration, and even blue! Both male and female wall lizards show this colour, although it is more often seen in the males, and almost always in the larger specimens.
An interesting debate has quietly gone back and forth over the status of this particular colony of lizards. Wall lizards are not recognised as a native British species, although they are very common in much of Europe. As non-native species, they are not protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and indeed it would be illegal to release a wall lizard into the wild. However, if they were afforded the status of native – for example, if it could be proven that the Ventnor population was a remaining fragment of a larger native population that once covered more of Southern England – then the wall lizards would almost certainly be granted protected status as with the other native British reptiles. So those who are fond of wall lizards have quite a motivation to argue that they are natives. Sadly for the lizards, it is very hard to demonstrate that this is the case. In fact, there is some anecdotal evidence that the colony was introduced to Ventnor, although exactly when is hard to say. Quite possibly the introduction was many years ago, maybe even in Victorian times, in which case not only will there be little evidence of it, the lizards will also have undergone a certain amount of adaptation to their new home, and so it may be harder to compare them with other possible ‘parent’ colonies to see where they may have originated.
It’s unlikely ever to be clearly established where the Ventnor lizards originated. Genetic fingerprinting could shed some light on it, but that’s a very time-consuming and expensive business, and the potential benefits in this case are not great. Each lizard for testing would need to be caught and a tissue sample removed. You’d have to not only test the Ventnor lizards but also their continental cousins – a lot of lizards. There would also be the issue of whether it would be legal to re-release lizards to Ventnor if they were captured for testing. So that might not be such a good idea. Anyway – the lizards seem to be thriving in Ventnor, and give pleasure to visitors and resident alike. Perhaps things are best left as they are.