The jacks are back - how farmers are helping to save a rare toad

Farmers are helping secure the future of the once endangered natterjack toad

Kerry farmer John Evans beisde a natterjack conservation scheme pond in Keel, County Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Kerry farmer John Evans beisde a natterjack conservation scheme pond in Keel, County Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Up close with the natterjack. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

Over 30 years ago, a golf club was carrying out drainage work on the 16th hole when a headline appeared in a national newspaper, 'Golf club threatens endangered species'.

This was Dooks Golf Links Club in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry's first introduction to the natterjack toad - listed as a protected species, one of only three amphibians native to Ireland, along with the common frog and the smooth newt.

The 128-year-old club subsequently adopted the natterjack as its club emblem and the two happily co-exist with the toads making their presence known by the distinctive croak of the male during mating season, which begins in April.

Former Dooks secretary, Declan Mangan, said the first they heard of it was when an article appeared in a national newspaper.

Up close with the natterjack. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Up close with the natterjack. Photo: Don MacMonagle

"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 a EU conservation award in 1987.

Despite efforts like this, natterjack populations fell dramatically resulting in the species being listed as 'endangered' and their conservation status assessed as 'unfavourable' in the All-Ireland Red List.

The natterjack is distinctive by its croak and the way it moves. Unlike other amphibians, the natterjack crawls rather than hops.

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It can be olive green to black in colour 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.

Since then, it has fared better, largely thanks to a scheme introduced by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2008.

Under the scheme, farmers were encouraged to dig ponds on their land for the toad and are paid €500 per year per pond to maintain a maximum of two ponds.

The natterjack toad is protected under the EU's Habitats Directive and the NPWS reports its findings to the EU Commission.

In addition to this, the NPWS also introduced a captive breeding programme in Fota Wildlife Park last year, which has been extended to Dingle's Oceanworld Aquarium this year.

Under the programme, toad spawn laid in pools that were drying out are transferred to the

two facilities where they are reared in tanks before being released back into the wild.

Populations are also being monitored for a three-year period by PhD student Marina Reneyn from Queens University in Belfast and in 2019 the most up-to-date estimation of the natterjack population will be determined.

Dr Ferdia Marnell of the NPWS Scientific Unit estimates the natterjack population to be around 10,000 but information from the current survey won't be released until the report is completed in 2019.

Boom or bust

"Toads are naturally a boom or bust species," said Dr Ferdia Marnell. "They only need a good year every four or five years to keep a breeding population going.

"In good years, when everything goes right, thousands of young toads can emerge onto land. 2014 has been the best year I ever remember and I've been studying them for nearly 20 years.

"Now the natterjack is only found at around 10 different spots but most of that decline happened in the first half of the 20th century or even before that," Dr Marnell explains.

"One of the first things we reckon happened was that there were significant flood defences put in by the landowners, who had been draining coastal marshes and erecting sea walls.

"By the 1970s when the first surveys were done of the natterjack toad, they were probably down to about 50pc of what we reckon would have been their historical range."

Since then, there haven't been any further declines and in the past decade there have been gradual small and slow expansions of the range, mainly due to the NPWS scheme.

"We've 100 ponds now dug, most of them in Castlemaine Harbour and some up and around Castlegregory as well and the toads are very quick to move into these, provided they're near existing sites and that they're suitable," he added.

That's the first bit of encouraging news.

One of the big losses each year for the toad annually is within ponds.

Tadpoles get predated by dragonfly larvae and birds. The female can lay 3,000 to 4,000 eggs but only a tiny fraction of these ever reach juvenile stage and emerge from the pond due to the amount of predation that goes on.

"By taking out even small numbers of tadpoles, like the couple of hundred that have gone to Fota and Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, we can nearly return all those animals at the end of the summer," Dr Marnell said.

Although the natterjack toad was introduced in Wexford in 1990 the focus of NPWS conservation efforts is very much on Kerry, where the populations naturally occur.

One of the problems with the natterjack toad is that this year, less than half the ponds have formed so that means less than half the toads can actually breed.

"Given that our population estimates are based on the number of spawn strings that are laid, the population estimate for this year is going to be very low. This doesn't mean the population has declined, it just means that the animals that are there haven't been able to breed," he said.

The population estimates for individual years can range from 4,000 to 12,000 animals but that isn't a reflection of the change in population, it's just a change in the numbers that managed to breed every year.

"But I would imagine the population to be around 10,000 or something like that and we need to see that going up a bit but that's not going to happen until they can expand into more habitats and expand the population accordingly," he said.

John W Evans from Keel, Castlemaine - whose lands lie in an Special Area of Conservation - has been aware of the natterjack all his life as he grew up where generations of his family farmed before him.

He's one of the farmers who has been involved in the NPWS natterjack conservation scheme from the beginning.

"They definitely have not always been as plentiful as they are now," said John W, who adds that on evenings he's working near the ponds the noise can be "deafening".

He said although there's some work involved in the maintenance of the pond, the conservation efforts have paid off and he can see and hear the evidence.

"We were always aware of the natterjack toad and used to bring the spawn to Fybough National School in a bowl when we were children to watch them hatch," John W said.

Being involved in the NPWS scheme has given farmers more incentive to look out for the toad. "I suppose it's since the grants were introduced that we're really taking notice of the natterjack. Firstly, we're being paid to look after two ponds each.

"But I had thought it had declined because you wouldn't hear the croaking as much as when we were children.

"That changed in 2014 and subsequent years when I noticed a big increase. The big problem I have with them is if I'm working too late with the sheep and cattle I have to clear the toads off the road so that I don't roll over them."

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