Who is hibernating in our dunes this winter?
As winter draws in and the days get colder, many of our dune species prepare themselves for the long wait until spring. Here, we shine the spotlight on the species hibernating in our dunes, nestled just below the surface of the sand.
What is hibernation?
Hibernation is when an animal enters a dormant period by slowing their heart rate, lowering their body temperature and decreasing their metabolic activity. Some species will enter true hibernation during the winter, and some will only have long periods of inactivity. Either way, this dormancy helps animals survive long periods of reduced food.
Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis)
Sand lizards are some of the rarest reptiles in the UK and they can be spotted in a few locations in south and west England, during the summer months. They hibernate during the winter in burrows that can be up to 1m deep in the sand.
At our sites where we know we have sand lizards, we work to create more areas of bare sand by removing some scrub and vegetation. This gives them space to bask in the sunshine, dig their burrows and lay their eggs.
Northern dune tiger beetle (Cicindela hybrida)
Northern Dune Tiger Beetle
Another rare species found on our dunes, the northern dune tiger beetle is one of the fastest beetles in the world. It’s thought that up to 75% of the UK population is found on the Sefton sand dunes. Tiger beetles need areas of bare sand to hunt for their prey and they dig their burrows into south facing dunes – this helps to keep the sand warm and protect their eggs and larvae. Second year adults emerge from hibernation in the spring whereas first year adults use the spring to pupate and emerge in the summer.
Similarly to sand lizards, we remove specially selected areas of scrub and vegetation to create bare sand on our dunes as tiger beetle habitat.
Natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita)
Natterjack toads can be found in and around dune slack pools, using the shallow water to lay their spawn during the breeding season. They burrow themselves into the sand around dune slacks during the winter to hibernate, emerging in April to find a mate. You can hear the male’s call from up to a mile away, especially in the breeding season when they come together, singing to attract females.
We’re working to improve existing dune slack pools and create new ones at our sites, particularly ones with known Natterjack toad populations. We do this by clearing some of the vegetation and scraping away the top layer of sandy soil to expose the water table below. Natterjack toads are protected by law and can’t be disturbed without a license, but you can help protect them by not paddling in dune slacks or letting dogs into the water – this helps to prevent them being disturbed during hibernation.
Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus)
Great Crested Newts
Great crested newts are the largest newt species in the UK and can be found on sand dunes thanks to the mosaic of different habitat types they offer. Great crested newts need clean ponds to raise their larvae during the breeding season and also need nooks and crannies to hide in and hibernate during the winter. They’re not true hibernators as they will take advantage of milder days to hunt and forage.
Our work with dune slacks, exposing new pools and removing vegetation helps the great crested newt during breeding season. Although they’re protected by law and must not be disturbed, you can sometimes see them from August onwards as they hunt invertebrates in preparation for winter hibernation.
Adder (Vipera berus)
Adders are the UK’s only venomous species of snake but are not deadly and only bite when feeling threatened. You can tell them apart from other snakes by the distinct zig-zag pattern down their backs. They’re usually found in woodland and heathland, but sand dunes can also provide suitable habitat. They can be seen basking in the sunshine on a log, rock or patch of bare sand and hibernate in burrows and inside structures like fallen trees. They’re elusive reptiles and normally spotted after being disturbed when walking close by or by a dog.
About the Author
Communications Officer, Dynamic Dunescapes
After studying wildlife ecology and conservation at university, I joined the world of communications via zoos and spent a few years working in bird of prey conservation, before joining the Dynamic Dunescapes project. I'm passionate about connecting people with stories and knowledge that'll empower them to make a difference and learn more about our natural world.