Saturday 29 November 2014

Baby boom saves rare Irish amphibian from extinction

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

As darkness falls in their Kerry sanctuary, the Natterjack toads come out looking for love.

And this poses a problem for sheep farmer John W Evans when he is out on the land late at night.

The boreen he takes home is often littered with the endangered amphibians.

So every few yards, John has to get out of the 4X4 and gently usher the lovelorn toads off the roadway.

"I have to clear them off the road so that I don't roll over them in the jeep. But that's the only complaint I have," he told the Sunday Independent.

And sometimes the "frogs' chorus" can be deafening - especially in boom years for the toads, like summer 2014.

More than 30 years ago, Dooks Golf Links was carrying out drainage work on its 16th hole when it was accused of threatening the survival of the rare toad.

'Golf club threatens endangered species' - screamed a headline in the Irish Times.

That was the golf club's first introduction to the Natterjack toad, listed as a protected species and one of only three amphibian species in Ireland, along with the common frog and the smooth newt.

Since then, the 125-year-old club has adopted the Natterjack as its emblem and today the golfer and toad happily co-exist. The toads make their presence known by the distinctive croak of the male during mating season in April - though an ill-timed croak has often been blamed for a wayward tee shot by members of the famed Glenbeigh links.

Former Dooks secretary Declan Mangan said: "When the article appeared, that was the first we had ever heard of it. We involved the conservation people then and brought them down and we built a shallow pond so they could lie on its verge."

The club's efforts were recognised by an EU conservation award in 1987. But despite this, Natterjack populations fell dramatically. This decline resulted in the species being listed as 'endangered' and its conservation status assessed as 'unfavourable' in the recent All-Ireland Red List. But this year, the toad is enjoying a bit of a baby boom in Kerry and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has recorded a "huge abundance" of young toadlets emerging from its breeding sites on the Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas, giving new hope for the future of the species.

The Natterjack is distinctive by its croak and the way it moves. Unlike frogs, the Natterjack crawls at a sedate pace rather than hop. It can be olive green to black, with yellow warts and a distinctive yellow stripe down its back.

The presence of the toad was first recorded in 1805, but by the 1980s it had become restricted to the Castlegregory area and about 10 isolated locations around Castlemaine - both on the Dingle Peninsula and in pockets around Rossbeigh, across the water on the Iveragh Peninsula.

Dr Ferdia Marnell of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's scientific unit said: "Toads are naturally a boom or bust species. They only need a good year every four or five years to keep a breeding population going and 2014 has been the best year I ever remember."

John W Evans, from Keel, Castlemaine, has been aware of the Natterjack all his life growing up on the family farm. In 2008, he built two ponds on his land and as he was involved in the Department of Agriculture's Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS), he qualified for grant aid of €500 per pond from the NPWS on top of an annual payment of €1,000 - guaranteed for the next five years - to maintain them.

"This year the conditions were ideal," he said.

John said the noise toads make in the evenings can be "deafening", but he added: "I like them. The only problem is it sometimes takes me a while to get home, there are so many on the roads."

Sunday Independent

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