Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Conserving the Reptiles and Amphibians of North Wales

North West Wales Amphibian and Reptile Group (NWWARG)

From a young age I’ve been interested in local herpetofauna, getting involved with my local amphibian and reptile group (ARG), Gwent at the age of 12. I volunteered with the group until moving to Bangor to study Herpetology. When I moved to Bangor I was keen to continue volunteering locally and joined North West Wales ARG (NWWARG). I have been a member for the past 3 years.  I have been chairing the group for the last year and a half.

Hibernacular construction with GARG.
Hibernacular construction with GARG.

North West Wales and the surrounding area is fortunate enough to hold a high proportion of the UK’s native herpetofauna, including, common lizards (Zootoca vivipara), slow worms (Anguis fragilis), grass snakes (Natrix helvetica), common frogs (Rana temporaria), common toad (Bufo bufo), palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus) and smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris). Additionally, there are several protected species; great crested newts (Triturus cristatus), natterjack toads (Epidalea calamita), the European adder (Vipera berus) and sand lizards (Lacerta agilis).

North Wales is home to some protected species such as the Great Crested Newt. Credit: Nathan Rusli
North Wales is home to some protected species such as the Great Crested Newt. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Herpetofauna observed includes the most abundant in UK distribution, like the common toad. Credit: Joshua Smith
Herpetofauna observed includes the most abundant in UK distribution, like the common toad. Credit: Joshua Smith
There is an established population of Aesculapian snakes in North Wales. Credit: Wolfgang Wüster
There is an established population of Aesculapian snakes in North Wales. Credit: Wolfgang Wüster
Common lizard photographed in situ. Credit: Joshua Smith.
Common lizard photographed in situ. Credit: Joshua Smith.
Adder photographed in situ at one of the local NWWT reserves. Credit: Ben Owens
Adder photographed in situ at one of the local NWWT reserves. Credit: Ben Owens

Interestingly, North West Wales is also home to a healthy population of alien Aesculapian snakes (Zamenis longissimus), accidentally released from the Welsh Mountain Zoo over 50 years ago. Like many ARGS, NWWARG focuses primarily on surveying, habitat management work and education. In this blog, I will discuss the highlights of some of the continued projects that we participate in, often in conjunction with other collaborators.  I’ll also touch on some of the threats that each project aims to alleviate.

Rixton Claypits Nature Reserve

Although most of our conservation work occurs locally, one project in which we collaborate with regularly is habitat management work at the Rixton Claypits Nature Reserve in Warwickshire. This project occurs in conjunction with the ARG of South Lancashire (ARGSL) and Warwickshire council. We sometimes also work in conjunction with local ecology firms.

This work largely focuses on vegetation clearance to increase the functionality and connectivity of ponds. The site is home to a significant population of great crested newts (GCN). However, some of the site experiences high levels of scrub encroachment e.g. willow trees. Through scrub clearance and strategic tree felling, pond systems can be opened to more sunlight, increasing habitat suitability e.g. through increasing heat to the pond and reducing the risk of eutrophication. Additionally, reducing dense vegetation between pond systems allows for better movement of populations/metapopulations increasing their connectivity and, likely, the genetic health of the populations on site. When larger trees need to be felled, logs are left to construct hibernaculas. Work on the site has happened multiple times over successive years, through which time the progress has been significant, as seen below.

Above the pond before and after scrub along the banks had been removed.
Above the pond before and after scrub along the banks had been removed.
Working party including NWWARG and ARGSL volunteers.
Working party including NWWARG and ARGSL volunteers.

 

 

Local Nature Reserves

Other sites we visit regularly include local North Wales Wildlife Trust (NWWT) sites. One site visited regularly is home to healthy populations of many of our native herpetofauna. The site can be divided into a lower pasture area and an upper gorse/heathland. Perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of the site is the abundance of slow worms, especially in the lower grassland. In the upper heathland there is a reasonable population of adders. Habitat management efforts have focused on managing gorse succession and creating clearances in dense gorse e.g. scalloped edges to increase habitat suitability and basking spots for the reptiles on site.

The entire site is covered in tin and felt refugia of varying sizes, spanning several years. After training with NWWARG, and assistance in laying the refugia, the NWWT volunteers undertake extensive surveying efforts, assessing observation rates between seasons, and also, allowing the assessment of the success of habitat management activities. Such training and surveying efforts also occur on other NWWT sites. For example, a recent project included clearing gorse to produce open basking spots; the cut gorse was then piled beside established walking paths to reduce the risk of disturbance by dogs/walkers. Volunteer observation has found adders basking in the cleared areas.

Volunteers creating clearings in dense gorse. Such openings operate as sun traps, forming important basking spots for reptiles such as adders. Credit: Katy Haines
Volunteers creating clearings in dense gorse. Such openings operate as sun traps, forming important basking spots for reptiles such as adders. Credit: Katy Haines

The continued survey work may prove invaluable in assessing population trends on site in the wake of an invasive species release in the local area. Due to a change in land ownership on neighbouring private land, a few thousand pheasants have been released locally. Pheasants have been observed to eat our local herpetofauna; therefore, their impact on a relatively restricted and isolated site may be significant. This release is particularly frustrating given the very effective habitat management that has happened on the site and the obvious benefits it has had. Such good land management is unfortunately often rare and it would be a shame to see a population decline in a site of value. Perhaps, most concerningly, the pheasant release site has occurred near a nationally significant population of sand lizards, where any possible predation would be of great concern.

Pheasant consuming a grass snake. Credit: Surrey ARG
Pheasant consuming a grass snake. Credit: Surrey ARG

Toad Patrol

Although not as prolific as some ARGs, NWWARG has a dedicated annual toad patrol in Treborth. The site has a healthy amphibian population. Over the course of the patrolling season, several hundred toads, frogs, and the occasional newt are moved across the roads towards their breeding ponds.

Toad patrol volunteers checking for any stranded amphibians in a cattle grid.
Toad patrol volunteers checking for any stranded amphibians in a cattle grid.

Toads are pond faithful, and will therefore, move over many barriers, including roads to migrate to their breeding ponds. Toad patrols occur nationwide, unfortunately high  toad mortalities are recorded in places.

Amplexus pair of common toads crossing a road. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Amplexus pair of common toads crossing a road. Credit: Nathan Rusli

Although firm population trends are not fully understood for common toads, it’s widely believed that populations have been declining significantly. Anthropogenic effects such as road mortality are likely to be a significant contributor to population declines. Next year we’re aiming to expand our toad patrolling efforts more widely across North West Wales.

Many toads perish because of cars. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Many toads perish because of cars. Credit: Nathan Rusli

Public Outreach

Public engagement is of massive importance to any local conservation work. NWWARG has participated in several open days to publicise the work we do and to increase awareness about local herpetofauna. Such work has included open days and public lectures. Not only are such events useful in learning about local reptiles and amphibians and how people can get involved in their conservation, it’s also an opportunity to change often negative perceptions of particularly snakes. We have found that the opportunity to handle a live animal is immensely useful in changing perceptions. Such events can also be useful in reducing bite incidences with adders and walkers/dogs by discussing methods to avoid such incidences.

Young visitor enjoying the ARG UK colouring resources. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Young visitor enjoying the ARG UK colouring resources. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Another visitor meeting a grass snake. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Another visitor meeting a grass snake. Credit: Nathan Rusli
NWWARG stall at Hidden Worlds public exhibition in Bangor University. Credit: Nathan Rusli
NWWARG stall at Hidden Worlds public exhibition in Bangor University. Credit: Nathan Rusli

Training Days

Annually, NWWARG organises amphibian and reptile training days. All of the training days are open to the public, allowing local volunteers and those interested in herpetofauna to gain important ID skills and a better understanding of survey skills. This year we were fortunate to have help from Peeta Marshall (Greenscape Environmental) with amphibian surveying and Mandy Cartwright (ARC) with an overview of the ecology, identification and management of great crested newts. The training days also offer a platform to discuss important and topical problems such as biosecurity, discussing strategies to reduce the risk of transmitting infectious amphibious diseases e.g. chytridiomyocosis (chytrid) or ranavirus and the reptilian disease, snake fungal disease (SFD).

Slow worm and common lizard found on reptile training course. Credit: Natasha Savage

Slow worm and common lizard found on reptile training course. Credit: Natasha Savage
Slow worm and common lizard found on reptile training course. Credit: Natasha Savage
Photos from our amphibian training day. See the video for more details. Credit: Nathan Rusli
Photos from our amphibian training day. See the video for more details. Credit: Nathan Rusli

 

Working with an ARG is an incredibly rewarding experience, much native herpetofauna studies rely on citizen science and the survey and recording work of ARGs and dedicated volunteers is integral to that. I would encourage anyone who is interested in their local wildlife and conservation to get involved with an ARG near them, or at least to record any sightings to national databases.

Thanks to…

Volunteers at a Rixton Claypits work day.
Volunteers at a Rixton Claypits work day.

I would like to thank the committee and our dedicated volunteers in which we so strongly rely. I would also like to thank the NWWT for their continued drive to manage and survey for our local herpetofauna. Thanks also to external contributors who’ve helped in the organisation and delivery of training days. Finally, thanks to Nathan Rusli for the production of several short videos about our work and to the photographers who’s work I’ve used, all of which have been credited above.

NWWARG committee 2018/19. From left to right; Ben Owens (Secretary), Rhiannon Carys Williams (Chairman), Demi Cook (Treasurer) and Natasha Savage (Engagement Officer).
NWWARG committee 2018/19. From left to right; Ben Owens (Secretary), Rhiannon Carys Williams (Chairman), Demi Cook (Treasurer) and Natasha Savage (Engagement Officer).

How can you help?

If you’re interested in getting involved with a local ARG to you, follow the link to find your nearest group: https://www.arguk.org/get-involved/local-groups.

More information about NWWARG can be found at: http://groups.arguk.org/nwwarg

If you see any herpetofauna, send your sightings here  https://www.cofnod.org.uk/Home  if you’re in Wales, and here for the UK:  https://www.recordpool.org.uk/

Rhiannon Carys Williams
About Rhiannon Carys Williams 1 Article
Rhiannon Carys Williams is a Zoology with Herpetology graduate from Bangor University, hoping to continue next year with an MScRes in Herpetology. She is the Co-Chair of Bangor University Herpetological Society (BUHS) and the Chair of the North West Wales Amphibian and Reptile Group (NWWARG). A passionate conservationist interested in the role of phylogeny in characterising conservation units and reducing human-wildlife conflict.

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