Work at Wandlebury starts on the Dew Pond

Many CPARG members and supporters will know that we have a very healthy working relationship with Cambridge Past, Present and Future who manage Wandlebury Country Park. This involves the monitoring of the site’s amphibians as well as an ongoing project to evaluate the slow worm population at Wandlebury. If you’re a CPARG member, you’re very welcome to get involved with both of these projects – as well as many others that will soon be commencing come the spring.

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The Dew Pond before our work party started

On the cold morning of November 9th, four avid CPARG members arrived at Wandlebury to start work on the Dew Pond (photographed above). We were expecting a slightly larger turn out but I suspect that the weather forecast put as few people off. Despite this, the day was quite warm for November and given that were all active the layers soon came off! A previous work party a couple of weeks before (completed by Cambridge PPF volunteers) had removed the decking to one corner and the fence around the pond. Our job was to remove the old pond liner and all of it’s contents ready for contractors to come in and reprofile the pond before relining it. This was no easy task due to the presence of invasive species such as New Zealand Pigmyweed (Crassula helmsii) which meant that extra care needed to be taken.

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Working as a team to get the job done!

The pond was slowly pulled apart piece by piece, with a full destructive search taking place to ensure that no wildlife (such as amphibians) was harmed as the pond was slowly transformed. Thankfully during the destructive search, no reptiles or amphibians were found. The Dew Pond has been empty for some time, although it has been a catchment for leaves and other organic debris meaning that soil had built up in some areas. This made our lives slightly more difficult but after a quick change in technique, we were back on track. Unfortunately we weren’t able to complete all of the work but we got the majority of it done (over 80%) with all of the waste being dumped at the outside of the pond ready for the diggers to collect at a later date. You can see just how much of a transformation took place by looking at the photo below.

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After all of our hard work

If you’d told me that four guys had managed to transform the Dew Pond in a few hours, I probably wouldn’t believe you – but we did it! The Dew Pond is currently undergoing it’s transformation, a process we helped start in 2015. We can’t wait to see how the pond develops over the coming years and we hope that the amphibians of Wandlebury both find it and use it to breed in.

Once work is complete, we’ll be back to monitor the pond to make sure that succession is successful. There may be a work party or two between now and then to plant up the new pond or to cut down brambles in the areas where the slow worms can be found but if you want to know more, keep an eye out on our website!

Winter work party at Barnwell East LNR

On the 27th October, CPARG had it’s first work party of the 2019/2020 winter period. Our efforts were focused at Barnwell East Local Nature Reserve, just off on Barnwell Road. The site is one that has been the subject of monitoring by CPARG for a few years now, sustaining a healthy population of common toads, common frogs and smooth newts. The reserve also hosts a range of habitats for other species as well but our efforts were trained on the pond. We completed some work on the pond back in 2017, since then the willows and other trees/vegetation surrounding the pond or growing in the pond have gone wild. As you can probably guess, the purpose of this work party was to help open the pond back up a bit ready for when the amphibians return in the spring.

Some of the volunteers getting stuck in helping to remove overgrown patches of reed mace

The pond has been monitored since 2015 and is the location of CPARG’s first confirmed breeding toad population (with the discovery of spawn) within Cambridge. Since then other populations have been found. One of the issues is that toad spawn is less conspicuous than that of frogs. It is laid in amongst the aquatic vegetation and forms a string rather than a clump. By removing some of the reed mace, not only are we making the site easier to survey but also providing more potential sites for toads to lay their eggs. It’s a win-win situation for us all and hopefully the toads will be back in force in the spring!

CPARG’s Toads on Roads Officer, Mark Goodman, cuts down some willow in order to provide more light to the pond

As well the vegetation growing within the pond, we also worked to remove some of that growing around the pond. The area is full of willows that grow fast and unfortunately block out the sun’s light reaching the pond. This can lead to a number of problems including the death of the submergent vegetation within the pond that can then cause a run-away reaction of eutrophication which isn’t good news for amphibians. Thankfully we were able to remove a significant amount of willow growth and rake some of the leaves out of the bottom of the pond. We may need to return in the near future to continue the work but for now, things are looking bright. All of the material removed was used to help build hibernacula around the pond for amphibians and the other inhabitants of the reserve.

Mark showing us his handiwork with one of the hibernacula constructed using cut-down willow and material removed from the pond

SAVE THE FROGS! – Translating Science into Action

Recently Froglife organised a free afternoon of talks on amphibian conservation at the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge. The main reason for this was that the Founder of SAVE THE FROGS!, Dr Kerry Kriger was visiting the area and wanted to help spread the word about the great conservation work that the organisation does. Froglife invited CPARG Chairman Steven Allain to give a talk on the work CPARG does within the county. There were also other talks from Froglife and the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) which helped to create a full afternoon of presentations and discussion about the status of amphibians what can be done to save them. Despite all of the doom and gloom in the world, the event was generally quite positive which is always a great way to get new volunteers involved with amphibian conservation.

CPARG Chairman Steven Allain introduces his talk

Steven’s talk was the first of the afternoon, followed by a talk from Laurence Jarvis of Froglife who went into some detail about the efforts and research Froglife is currently undertaking to help save amphibians. Keep your eyes peeled for future updates as it may have a number of positive implications on how we conduct toad patrols and other levels of monitoring. Following this was Helen Meredith giving a talk on the activities and aims of the Amphibian Survival Alliance around the world and how that fits in to amphibian conservation locally. Finally was the main event, Kerry Kriger informed the audience of the amazing work SAVE THE FROGS! does and what is in store for the future.

From left to right: Dr Kerry Kriger (Founder of SAVE THE FROGS!), Steven Allain (CPARG Chairman) and Mark Goodman (CPARG Toads on Roads Officer)

If you were at the event please let us know what you thought and if you’d like to get involved with local amphibian and reptile conservation then please do get in touch!

Making Cambridge’s newt crossings more visible

One of the great things about CPARG is that we have some relatively long-term datasets for sites that we monitor around Cambridge. One of these in Chesterton, Cambridge was subject to a article published in the Herpetological Bulletin in 2016 written by CPARG’s very own Steven Allain and former member Liam Smith. The article reported on the mortality of smooth newts on a cycle path along the River Cam where newts were being run over by cyclists on their annual migration to their breeding ponds. You may remember a similar post from last year where we announced that we’d made the crossing more visible by erected some signs under the permission of the local council. This got a project student at Anglia Ruskin University interested and she’s been busy monitoring the crossing for us – the dry and cold weather hasn’t helped but we hope her results will be worth sharing!

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One of the signs attached to a nearby post along the cycle path

If you’d like to get involved with the monitoring, or would like some similar signs of your own to erect in an area near you then please get in touch!

The 100th Conversazione!

Many of you will recognise that CPARG actively takes part in outreach across the county in a number of forms. One of these is the Cambridge Natural History Society Conversazione, which this year celebrated it 100th event! Of course these haven’t been consecutive because for a number of reasons including two world wars. For the 100th Conversazione (conversation in Italian) there were 100 exhibits including one from Sir David Attenborough himself, although he wasn’t in attendance. This year the event was held in the very familiar Elementary Labs on Friday 12th April and Saturday 13th April.

It has always made more sense to me for the event to be called the ‘conservazione’ which is Italian for conservation. It wasn’t until this event that I discovered the true meaning of the event’s name. The event is of course designed to get people to talk about their research and conservation projects to one another and the general public – so of course conversazione is the ideal name for such a gathering! Six members of CPARG were in attendance across the two days (five are pictured below) with many attendees visiting the stand to ask a whole host of questions and share their experiences. We’ve still got to follow some of these up but we are getting there!

If you’d like to help out at the next Conversazione or a similar event, please do get in touch!

From left to right: Terry Moore, Mark Goodman, Helen Moore, Mario Shimbov and Steven Allain.

Gearing up for slow worm surveys

With the days beginning to draw out and spring on our heels we made our first visit to Wandlebury Country Park on Saturday 16th March, to set up the felts for our new extended survey this year for slow worms. We’ve been surveying the slow worms at the site for a couple of years now and it’s time we expanded the survey area to learn more about the population. So far our surveys have been restricted to one particular area where intensive surveys have revealed the demographics of a snapshot of the population.

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Some of the team lay out new refugia and mark their location using a  handheld GPS device

Overall, we put out another 50 tiles with the aim to seeing to what extent they occur within the site.  We also took the chance to replace some of the more worn felts within our existing study area, which we plan to continue surveying, as we have over the past three years.

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A replacement felt being laid within the existing survey area

Once everything has had chance to bed-in, the vegetation grow and temperatures rise, we will start our surveys on Saturday 30th March and will continue throughout April and May.  So if you would like come along and get involved please get in touch!

Photos © Mario Shimbov

Herpy New Year!

The second Saturday of 2019 marked the beginning of our work parties in the New Year, designed to help improve habitats for local amphibians and reptiles. Ten enthusiastic volunteers joined our task at the Cherry Pond, Wandlebury Country Park. Members of CPARG and staff from Cambridge Past, Present & Future all came along to take part in a habitat management and pond restoration project. Our overall aim was to improve the habitat for the amphibians that breed in the pond by removing any plants which had become overgrown. We also worked to remove the invasive swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii) and thinned out other aquatic plants that grow in the pond.

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The team hard at work at one corner of the pond

Other work was carried out to help clear the water from organic and inorganic debris and make the habitat suitable for reptiles such as the Grass snake (Natrix helvetica) by creating compost heaps and other refugia by the banks. Refugia are important for both amphibians and reptiles and by creating those the chances for the animals’ survival are higher. Along with this, the area surrounding the pond was intensively managed by removing ivy and reducing the coverage of brambles which had taken over the vegetation. This also had the bonus effect of opening up more space for monitoring the site during surveys in the new season.

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Work was also carried out inside the pond to help remove overgrown and invasive vegetation

 

On the day, we saw a small number of smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) in the pond, which whilst exciting is also worrying. If you’d like to get involved with the monitoring of the amphibians at Wandlebury – please do get in touch. Finally, I would like to take the chance and say thank you very much to all those who came along and helped make such an impact for local amphibians.

All photos © Mario Shimbov 2019

Slow worm winter works

On Saturday 1st December we reached the culmination of our slow worm monitoring at Wandlebury Country Park for 2018 when members of CPARG and staff from Cambridge Past, Present & Future (CPPF) carried out some habitat management to benefit the species at the site. For those of you that haven’t been following the project, over the past couple of years we have been monitoring an introduced population of slow worms at the site to investigate their population dynamics and ensure they are breeding. This involves regular surveys to count individuals but also to collect biometric data.

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Some of the team taking a minute to appreciate the progress that they’ve made

The focus of our work was to reduce the coverage of brambles and create more scrub edges as well as beginning to control the spread of non-native plant species such as periwinkle and Chinese lantern. These had recently started to take over the site, along with large patches of brambles and mint which made it both hard to survey and reduced the habitat suitability for the slow worms. We aim to continue our monitoring in 2019 and extend our surveys across the park; so if you are interested in helping out look out for more details in the New Year. Finally, thanks to everyone who came and help get the site ready for the coming survey season.

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One of the many areas that was opened up to facilitate monitoring next year

Guest blog post by Iain Bray

Where did the midwife toads come from?

Regular readers of this blog and those familiar with the projects we are currently involved will know that we are heavily involved with research into the midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans). We have been studying a population of the toads in central Cambridge since 2015 and have so far conducted population surveys and disease screening. We were also curious about where the toads originated, so last year we took some DNA samples from some of the toads (by using a cotton swab to remove loose cells from the mouths of the toads) for analysis. Using our CSI-like approach we were able to deduce that the toads originated in northern Spain, after comparing their DNA sequences with a online reference database.

This was a surprising result as it has long been assumed that all midwife toads in the UK have a French origin. After presenting the results at a couple of conferences, it got us thinking. How many independent introductions have there been of midwife toads in the UK and are they all the same species? Now we are involved in national monitoring program with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust and the Herpetological Society of Ireland in order to answer these questions. We are currently crowdfunding the lab costs for this project, a link to our GoFundMe page can be found here. If you you could please share the link among your networks we would be very appreciative.

The project is only possible thanks to the cooperation and collaboration from other ARGs and interested individuals – so thank you.

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One of the Cambridge midwife toads from which a DNA sample was taken

Midwife toad surveys resume!

As I’m sure many of you are aware, we are currently swabbing the Cambridge midwife toads for the presence of a deadly fungus. The results from our 2017 swabbing efforts have recently been published online and they can be found here. With the unusually cold start to the spring, the toads have only just started to become active. Luckily, on our first survey we found  toad and we will continue to survey them until the end of the survey season. Keep an eye out here for updates!

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One of the toads swabbed so far during the 2018 season