WALKERS on Dorset's heaths are being urged not to lift up tin sheets providing shelter for legally protected reptiles.

Dorset Wildlife Trust and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation are warning that disturbing protected species could result in breaking the law.

Conservationists leave small pieces of tin, or sometimes roofing felt, out on heathland and other wildlife sites for reptiles to use as shelter and to help with conservation survey and monitoring work. Lifting or removing these should only be carried out by a person with a licence to survey for reptiles.

And too much lifting can cause enough disturbance for reptiles to flee the area completely. All six native reptiles can be found on DWT's Upton Heath in Corfe Mullen, the smooth snake, adder and grass snake, the common lizard, slow worm and the UK’s rarest lizard, the sand lizard.

“Understanding the distribution of reptiles is an important part of being able to conserve them," said senior reserves manager for ARC, Gary Powell.

"If tins are disturbed outside of an official survey then it can affect the results of the research, as animals will not remain under the tin once it has been lifted. We are concerned for the safety of both humans and animals, as adders also utilise tins and although they are non-aggressive, they may bite if they feel threatened.

"One of the best ways to see our native reptiles in the wild are those moments when you observe them going about their normal activities. A keen eye and plenty of patience are key ingredients.”

DWT reserves recording and monitoring officer, Amber Rosenthal said: "It is great when people have close encounters with any of the beautiful reptiles that occur on our reserves and taking photographs is a popular way for people to share their experiences, as long as the animals aren’t disturbed by lifting the tins or man-handled to achieve this.

"Many people don’t realise that lifting these tins can have a negative impact on our snakes and lizards so DWT is now putting notices on the tins on our nature reserves to help ensure the continued protection of these magnificent reptiles.”

As well as all six being protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and classified as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the sand lizard and smooth snake also receive protection at European level under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.