WILDLIFE havens for Britain’s rarest reptile have been saved thanks to a five-year conservation effort.

The heathland has been restored at 41 sites across the South Downs National Park in Sussex and Hampshire, enabling the creation of a new habitat for the sand lizard.

In total, the sites add up to an area equal to 18,000 football pitches.

The Heathlands Reunited initiative has also enabled the return and recovery of endangered species including the field cricket, the Dartford warbler and the natterjack toad.

A South Downs National Park spokesman said: “The project focused on heathland at 41 sites, stretching from Bordon, in Hampshire, to Pulborough in West Sussex.

“The need was profound because less than 1 per cent of former heathland remains in the National Park and what was left was very fragmented, leaving animals and plants vulnerable to extinction in these isolated island habitats.

“Heathlands are, in fact, man-made and only exist because our ancestors used them to dig peat for fuel, harvest heather and graze animals, unwittingly creating a unique mosaic of habitats which many plants and animals now can’t survive without.”

The Argus: A sand lizard - the UK's rarest reptile A sand lizard - the UK's rarest reptile

The initiative received £2 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Among the areas restored were Woolmer Forest, a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Hampshire which is home to 12 of Britain’s native reptiles and amphibian species and which is now rated to be in “favourable condition” for wildlife.

Andrew Lee, director of Countryside Policy and Management at the National Park Authority, said: “We all know biodiversity is under unprecedented threat, but Heathlands Reunited is one of the success stories, showing how much can be achieved if we make space for nature.

“Seeing animals such as the woodlark, sand lizard and field cricket flourish once again is truly inspiring.

“The fight to protect our heathlands will never be over, but I can safely say that our heaths are in a much better place than they were five years ago. The biggest thing we can all do to help them survive is to continue caring for them.

“The success of this project is the perfect springboard for our ambitious plan to ‘ReNature’ the South Downs, underlining how nature recovery at a landscape scale can tackle both the biodiversity and climate crisis. Crucially, it’s only possible because of people working together to make a difference.”

Rob Free, Weald Reserves Manager for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, added: “The icing on the cake for us, and a wonderful legacy for the Heathlands Reunited project, will be the reintroduction of Natterjack toads to Blackmoor in 2022 after an absence of 50 years now that the habitat is suitable for them once more.”