There is an unseen migration in the British countryside at this time of year as toads make their way back to the ponds where they were spawned, in order to breed. Many would end up under the wheels of cars, but for a small army of volunteers.
What do you call an organisation that is devoted to the well being of Britain's frogs? How about Froglife? This small but industrious charity was founded in 1989. Last week it featured in a BBC magazine programme which went out with its volunteers in the Bath area, picking up toads galore as well as the odd newt and transporting them safely in buckets to the other side of the road.
For those who can receive it, The One Show can be found here until about the end of the month. Last year they reckon to have saved around four and a half thousand amphibians here alone.
The Froglife website is a mine of information, and over the weekend I caught up with Samantha Taylor, the charity's Communications Coordinator to ask her a few questions about its current work.
AB: Is February your busiest month? What do you do for the rest of the year?
ST: Amphibian breeding season – from February to around May - is definitely a busy time for us. This is when we are offering a lot of support to the Toad Patrol volunteers across the country, from registering new sites, signing up new volunteers, matching volunteers to Patrols to giving advice on road signs. It’s also a busy time this year on Hampton Nature Reserve, which we manage on behalf of O&H Hampton Ltd, as we are undertaking the 5 yearly newt monitoring programme and getting ready to survey over 300 ponds on the site. Summer is also hectic, as it's reptile season and time to undertake surveys for snakes and lizards, as well as a time to watch out for amphibian disease cases. Autumn and winter are the best pond creation and restoration periods. All year round we run conservation education projects – so there’s never really a quiet moment!
AB: Apart from collecting toads in a bucket and taking them to the other side of the road, is there anything more permanent that can be down to assist their safe migration? Tunnels, that sort of thing?
ST: Some Toad Crossing sites do have more permanent features designed to help the toads, such as tunnels and fencing. We are currently undertaking a survey of these measures across the UK as part of a workshop we are working towards with representatives from similar organisations across Europe. The success of these schemes varies – they need to be properly installed, maintained and monitored, and there is real potential for a more coordinated and longer term approach to helping toads, and other amphibians across the EU and beyond.
AB: Much of our indigenous wildlife is under threat, but there is reason for optimism, such as the River Wandle project, the reintroduction of otters to every county in England, and thriving barn owls, but ponds and similar habitat remain under threat. Are you optimistic for the future, and what would you like to see the government and other bodies doing?
ST: There are reasons for optimism - some of our amphibian and reptile species are flourishing, and there are some really successful conservation projects that show what can be achieved. However, we can’t afford to be complacent when ponds, wetlands and heathlands are still under threat, and animals like the adder are having a very difficult time. The big battle for some of our animals is on the PR side – the recent press about the conservation status of the adder drew a lot of negative comments. How are projects going to succeed, or even get funding, if myths about the danger or unpleasantness of the creatures prevail over facts? We would like to see more information about native animals on the National Curriculum, well used outdoor classrooms with ponds in every school, councils reinvesting in local biodiversity conservation, more landscape scale projects like the Great Fen, farmers and landowners taking wildlife-friendly measures and being recognised for doing so.
AB: Does digging a pond in your back garden really help?
ST: Digging a pond in your garden really can help! Not only does it bring local wildlife a lot closer, so people can enjoy watching the behaviours and lifecycles of animals in their neighbourhood, they provide a breeding and feeding hub for all sorts of animals including frogs, toads, newts, grass snakes, birds, invertebrates and mammals. We have advice on creating your own pond in our Just Add Water booklet, available on our website. Terrestrial habitat around the ponds is just as important – log piles, compost heaps, areas of long grass, meadows and shrubberies provide valuable habitat too. As people fill in ponds and cut their gardens off with impassable fences, decking or patios, there can be noticeable disruption to local wildlife – frogs have been known to come back and spawn on the lawn where a pond has been removed. Particularly in urban areas, gardens account for a large percentage of the local green spaces, so how you manage your garden can have an impact; the Hedgehog Street project by The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is a great example of an urban, landscape scale conservation project that recognises the potential of gardeners working together.
AB: You dig ponds yourself, I gather. How many have you dug to date?
ST: We have had a number of pond creation schemes over the years – it’s hard to quantify the exact number we have created! Since 2008 we have created over 200 ponds and restored over 120 wetland habitats through our projects.
AB: How many members do you have, and what is the best way for people to help you, and British amphibians in general?
ST: We don’t actually have members - we have over 3,000 supporters who are involved in our work in different ways, including volunteers, donors and project participants. The best way for people to help us is: donate to support our work, volunteer to help us succeed in our aims, create a wildlife friendly garden with a pond and/or get involved in a local green space, share data about wildlife in their patch with their local record centre, and spread the word about the value of amphibians and reptiles from a conservation and cultural point of view.
AB: Since you were formed in 1989, have the frog and toad populations increased, and how do you measure the populations?
ST: Since we started, we have been gathering data on different species, particularly through the Toad Patrols and our Frog Mortality project. We are currently analysing the Toad Patrol data to give an accurate picture of how the animals are getting on in the wider sense – this has proved to be a massive undertaking due to the amount of data involved, but we hope to be publishing something soon. We are also working with the Institute of Zoology on the impact of an amphibian disease called Ranavirus – again more data will be available on this soon through a PhD project. It’s hard to generalise, but studies have shown that there have been local declines in populations of frogs and toads, particularly in areas of intensive development or agriculture (e.g Young & Beebee 2004), with extinctions in some areas linked to road mortalities (e.g Cooke 2011).
AB: How is your Great Crafted Newts competition going?
ST: We have just launched the Great Crafted Newt competition and we’re really excited about it! We have had a few people sign up to enter so far, and some fantastic photos of newts knitted from recycled wire by artist Amanda McKim. We’ve also had some great support from businesses like Mint Publishing, a card company, and Hathay Bunano, a crocheted toy company. The competition runs until October this year, so there is plenty of time for people to get creating their newts!
A photograph by Jules Howard - Toad on the road.
A photograph by Jules Howard - Toad on wood.
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