(First published on 18/4/12 on the ARGUK website www.arguk.org)
Recent media attention has highlighted the impact of current drought conditions on natterjack toad breeding success. Natterjack breeding ponds are typically shallow sandy pools which dry up in some years. This is good for keeping predators in check, but with several consecutive dry winters and springs, it poses a serious threat to breeding success.
With fewer than 50 breeding populations in Britain (a number that has struggled to increase despite decades of conservation), the plight of the natterjack seems as difficult as ever. An added worry is the discovery of chytrid at some natterjack populations, and concerns that this is causing declines. Coupled with genetic impoverishment in some populations, the natterjack seems to be a little less robust than we would like. Is it now time to consider radical action, and perhaps some lateral thinking?
One solution could be to introduce natterjacks to locations where they have not existed historically, but where the habitat is ideal. I have often pondered this while walking in sand quarries where I've worked. Bare sand, sparsely-vegetated sand, ephemeral pools, plenty of invertebrates – it all seems ideal.
And in fact, in Switzerland, sand quarries are the mainstay of natterjacks, and road construction projects are their main corridor of dispersal. Temporary breeding pools are simply taped off at sensitive times of year, and the quarry operator is allowed to go about their business relatively unhindered. This is a truly pragmatic strategy. The natterjacks can breed and thrive. Some are killed, inevitably; but the overall result is good, and with minimal habitat management. Contrast this with the intensive management required to maintain populations in Britain.
Even with a concerted conservation effort by Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, Amphibian & Reptile Groups, landowners, country agencies and other partners, natterjacks face a constant struggle for survival in many areas. Natural seral succession is one of the biggest challenges, and natterjacks rely upon scrub management and grazing regime at many sites. They are pioneer-opportunists in nature, and in an increasingly-managed landscape in Britain, there are few places than meet their approval. In early post-Ice Age Britain, the sparsely-vegetated landscape with plenty of bare fluvial and coastal sand would have been ideal.
Such early-successional environments only really exist in coastal dunes and similar environments – and in sand quarries. Could we not introduce natterjacks to sand quarries up and down Britain? It would require a licence allowing quarry operators to go about their business without worrying about killing individual natterjacks; a similar situation to Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, Forestry Commission, Natural England and other large land managers.
So how about it? How about trialling this approach by introducing natterjack spawn to several specially-licensed quarries? A key consideration would be to assure the quarry operators that they are not making a rod for their own back. It would require assurances from the statutory bodies, and a carrot in the form of a positive PR story: 'Quarries step in to save iconic natterjack toad!'
Conservationists and quarries are unlikely bed-fellows, and I can see them lining up for a slice of this PR gold.
Dr Chris Gleed Owen is Director of the specialist wildlife consultancy CGO Ecology and chairperson of the Dorset Amphibian & Reptile Network.
CGO Ecology Ltd
5 Cranbourne House
12 Knole Road
Dorset BH1 4DQ
British Ecological Society - Natterjack toad threatened by UK drought – intensive conservation efforts needed to protect amphibians
Natural England - Is the Natterjack toad about to croak?