James Silvey, RSPB Nature Recovery Officer, reflects on our resilient amphibians.
If asked how many species of toad were native to the UK many people may answer, “Is there more than one species of toad?” surprisingly the answer is, yes. The UK has two native species of toad, the common toad Bufo bufo and the much rarer natterjack toad Epidalea calamita.
The natterjack toad is a real survivor, living in some of the UK’s most amphibian-unfriendly (and threatened) environments such as saltmarshes, dune systems and lowland heaths. All of these habitats are changeable, unpredictable and - most importantly for amphibians - provide limited access to fresh water. However these are the areas where natterjacks thrive.
Ponds drying up? Natterjack tadpoles develop quicker than any other native amphibian. Growing legs and leaving the pond in just 4 weeks.
Heathland fires? Natterjacks dig deep burrows in sandy soils protecting them from the worst of the flames.
Unpredictable rains? Natterjacks have a longer breeding season than most UK amphibians allowing them to take advantage of ideal conditions when they arise.
Adult natterjack toad showing characteristic yellow stripe along the back.
These toads are born survivors that live on catastrophe and thrive because of it. Its no wonder their species name calamita means misfortune/disaster, these amphibians live life on the edge.
It was these thoughts I kept in my head as I travelled to Mersehead reserve in Dumfries and Galloway to survey the damage the January storms had caused to one of only a handful of natterjack populations found in Scotland.
Like most of the UK’s coastline, large areas of the Solway coast were battered by the severe winter storms. Add exceptionally high tides and the results were destroyed dunes, inland seawater flooding and large amounts of marine litter scattered across the reserve.
Three weeks since the storms and the reserve still had large areas of water lying across the dune grasslands, gorse bushes were uprooted along the main path leading down to the beach and marine rubbish lay across the site.
Down at the natterjack site thankfully the picture looked a little better. Although large sections of the dunes further along had been destroyed, the dunes protecting the natterjacks had stood firm. Unfortunately though the seawater had found another route into the site and after speaking to Site Manager Colin, it was clear that until recently the entire site had been under seawater. This was really brought home after checking the salinity of the four natterjack breeding ponds. Natterjacks can cope with higher salinity levels than other UK amphibians however all of these ponds were far too salty even for natterjacks.
What of the toads? At this time of year the toads will be hibernating deep in their burrows hopefully safe from sea water floods. We won’t know the full extent of the damage caused to the population until April when the toads begin to emerge.
Personally I’m optimistic. Natterjack toads have survived in the UK since the last ice age and are well equipped to deal with the worst the Atlantic can throw at them. With any luck their deep burrows will have protected them from the flooding and in April they’ll emerge entirely clueless to the drama that unfurled around them.
Like the toads the reserve is also a real survivor with breaches in flood defences being fixed and plans underway to drain and clean the natterjack ponds. My visit also coincided with a volunteer event with scores of volunteers clearing the reserve and beach of litter.
It was these thoughts I kept in my head when I read Colin’s email this morning, Mersehead is underwater again.
You can’t fight nature.
Are you aged 16-24? Our Communications Support Intern, Harry Forshaw, is conducting a survey to find out what you look for in a volunteering experience.
What do you look for in a volunteering opportunity?
At RSPB Scotland we are developing our engagement with 16-24 year olds by creating new and exciting volunteering opportunities. Our mission is to build up a partnership with this age group, to tap the energy and ideas you could bring to our organisation. We think that such a relationship is mutually beneficial; by helping us out with a range of tasks - from on-the-ground conservation to office-based administration - you have the chance to develop skills, meet new people and greatly improve your future employability. Being in my early twenties, I fully understand the need to gain a breadth of worthwhile experiences at this age; be it volunteering, fundraising or simply working with others.
First off, we need to know what you might like to see included within such an opportunity. The survey seeks to do precisely this, by asking how long you may want to volunteer with RSPB Scotland for, the types of benefits you may be looking to gain from the experience - for example developing your CV or gaining Young Scot points - and the range of activities you might like to undertake.
The information that you give us will be invaluable to many departments within RSPB Scotland, helping us to find out more about the needs and wants of your age group, and put these into action as we develop real life volunteering opportunities. If, for example, many of you are interested in spending time on an RSPB reserve, then we would endeavour to develop our residential volunteering opportunities towards this end. Alternatively, if you would like to utilise your existing IT and social media skills, then we would develop a web-based volunteering opportunity that puts your expertise into action. Above all else, no matter what information you provide us with, we will do our upmost to turn it into career-enhancing, memorable volunteer opportunities to spur you on your way to success and fulfilment in the future.
Click the link to complete the survey https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/979SPX8.
Your time is greatly appreciated. Thank you.
Communications Support Intern, RSPB Scotland.