Solway dune restoration sees leap in rare natterjack toad

Numbers of rare natterjack toads have increased by 400% at Mersehead nature reserve in Dumfries and Galloway, thanks to a three-year habitat restoration project at the site. Picture: RSPB Scotland
Numbers of rare natterjack toads have increased by 400% at Mersehead nature reserve in Dumfries and Galloway, thanks to a three-year habitat restoration project at the site. Picture: RSPB Scotland
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A rare toad is thriving at a nature reserve in southern Scotland as a result of a three-year project to halt the disappearance of the species.

Numbers of natterjack toads have leapt fourfold since work began to restore sand dunes at the RSPB’s Mersehead site in Dumfries and Galloway.

The Solway Firth is the only place natterjacks can be found in Scotland but there were serious concerns for the survival of the Mersehead population after severe winter storms in 2013 destroyed dunes where they traditionally hibernate.

Intensive surveys began in spring 2014, finding male toads by following their rasping call – the loudest of any amphibian in Europe.

There were around 30 breeding males counted at Mersehead when the project began but numbers had risen to 150 by last year.

As well as repairing dunes, conservationists from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) and RSPB Scotland have created new shallow ponds across the site for the toads to breed in.

Each toad carries a unique pattern of warts and a yellow ‘racing stripe’ on its back, which can be used to distinguish individuals.

This means surveyors were able to create a mugshot database of toads found on the site and ensure the same individuals were not counted more than once.

Females are harder to count since they only visit ponds for a couple of nights a year to lay eggs, so the team has been monitoring the amount of spawn laid each season.

The combined data indicates that natterjacks have been increasing at Mersehead.

“It’s fantastic to see that the natterjack population is responding to the habitat management we’ve put in place,” said James Silvey, species and habitats officer for RSPB Scotland.

“The evidence of toads breeding in three of the five ponds we made for them in 2015 is a real highlight.

“Natterjack populations are declining across most of their range in Scotland, due to climate change and inappropriate management, making the population at Mersehead all the more important.

“We’ll be continuing our work for these amphibians over the coming years to hopefully increase their numbers even more.”

Numbers of natterjack toads have leapt fourfold since work began to restore sand dunes at the RSPB’s Mersehead site in Dumfries and Galloway.

The Solway Firth is the only place natterjacks can be found in Scotland but there were serious concerns for the survival of the Mersehead population after severe winter storms in 2013 destroyed dunes where they traditionally hibernate.

Intensive surveys began in spring 2014, finding male toads by following their rasping call – the loudest of any amphibian in Europe.

Around 30 breeding males were counted at Mersehead when the project began but numbers had risen to 150 by last year.

As well as repairing dunes, conservationists from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and RSPB Scotland have created shallow ponds across the site for the toads to breed in.

Each toad carries a unique pattern of warts and a yellow ‘racing stripe’ on its back, which can be used to distinguish individuals.

This means surveyors were able to create a mugshot database of toads found on the site and ensure the same individuals were not counted more than once.

Females are harder to count since they only visit ponds for a couple of nights a year to lay eggs, so the team has been monitoring the amount of spawn laid each season. The combined data indicates that natterjacks have been increasing at Mersehead.

James Silvey, species and habitats officer for RSPB Scotland, said: “It’s fantastic to see that the natterjack population is responding to the habitat management we’ve put in place.

“The evidence of toads breeding in three of the five ponds we made for them in 2015 is a real highlight.

“Natterjack populations are declining across most of their range in Scotland, due to climate change and inappropriate management, making the population at Mersehead all the more important.

“We’ll be continuing our work for these amphibians over the coming years to hopefully increase their numbers even more.”

Future plans include the creation of three large shallow lagoons to further expand the habitat available to natterjack toads at Mersehead, which has recently been extended.

Once this is complete, efforts will focus on removing scrub across the dune system to the east of the site and bring it into favourable condition for breeding.

Experts say this will allow the toads to be heard across the length of the coast, as they once would have been.

Natterjacks are one of only two species of toad native to the UK – the other is the common toad.

They are confined to coastal sand dune systems, feeding on beetles, sandhoppers and other invertebrates.

Their short legs mean they can move fairly quickly on land, though they run rather than hop.