Even conservationists often cook their own soup. For the first time, organizations in the UK are working hand in hand to rescue endangered species. With success.
The team digs ponds to create a suitable habitat for the rare toads. Last year at this time would have meant shoveling snow, but on that day, temperatures cracked 20 degrees. As it turned out, it was the hottest winter day in the history of the United Kingdom. There were even reports of fires in moorlands near Lancashire.
While people enjoy the unusually summery temperatures, these are a real threat to the toads. “It could not be much worse, we had such a dry winter,” says Andrew Hampson of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC), which coordinates over 20 volunteers.
“It’s supposed to be raining next week and it would be great for us if it did not stop for two weeks,” hopes Hampson. The toads thrive best after a long, wet winter and a dry summer, he adds.
Together for nature conservation
Volunteer Day is part of the Gems-in-the-Dunes project and aims to increase the number of turtles, as well as those of the nationally endangered sand lizards.
In turn, Gems in the Dunes is part of the nationally-coordinated Back From The Brink project, in which seven of the UK’s largest nature conservation organizations are working together to rescue 20 of the UK’s most threatened species and hopefully improve the survival of 200 others.
This is the first time organizations like ARC, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Buglife and Plantlife have worked so closely together.
“There is a growing desire to find ways to support each other’s organizations,” said James Harding-Morris, one of the national coordinators of Back From The Brink to DW.
He says the initiative is about “how we can do more by working together than we can on our own, and never before has anything been attempted to that extent.”
Sefton Dunes, one of the country’s largest original dune systems is a good example. Fiona Sunners, project manager for Gems in the Dunes, said that in addition to a significant population of reptiles and amphibians, the area is also home to rare insects such as the sand dune beetle and plants such as broom moss and liverworts.
By working with experts from different areas of conservation, they can expand their knowledge, achieve more and protect whole, interdependent ecosystems, rather than focusing on just one species.
“Before, we cooked our own soup,” Sunners told DW. “But if we have a problem with liverwort now, we can pick up the phone and call Plantlife, and if I need something about the dune sand beetle, I can talk to Buglife.”
Some species that want to save the project, such as the toad and the lizard, are still common in other parts of Europe, but increasingly rare in the UK. The populations of some of the top 20, such as the willow tit, have dropped more than 90 percent in the past 40 years. And then there are species that have been resettled in their old habitats – like the pine marten in Northumberland.
Some species are extremely rare. “The moss Ditrichum cornubicum only exists in two places in Cornwall and nowhere else in the world,” says Harding Morris. “Together, both surfaces are only 0.61 square meters, which is equivalent to about 2 pages of Din A4 paper.”
Back From The Brink was founded in 2018 but is already delivering results. Last year, the Yellow-crayfish was reintroduced into Northamptonshire, where it had not existed since 1948, and a project in Dorset revived a rare plant population with an unusual approach.
“In Dorset, we are working with this rare plant, the swamp-bearded rag,” said Trevor Dines, botanist at Plantlife to DW. “About 85 percent of the plants had disappeared from the area, due to the development of the area, including coal mining.”
Nature conservation often means that humans retire from an ecosystem and leave nature alone, but some species benefit from being disturbed, explains Dines. One of them is the Swamp Bear Lapp.
“And so we decided to go back and forth over a colony of 3000 of these plants with a five-ton tractor,” he says. Meanwhile, their number has grown to an estimated 12,000.
“The rule ‘Do not run over the grass’ does not always apply,” jokes Dines.
“We need a change of perspective”
Getting permanent money to sustain such tiny species is a challenge. Back From The Brink has secured 7 million pounds (8.1 million euros) from the National Lottery Heritage Fund of the British Government over three years. What happens after 2021 remains open. Concrete, presentable results would increase the project’s chances of future funding, but it’s never safe in nature conservation.
The factors that cause the long-term decline of insect, plant, bird and mammal populations – habitat destruction, intensive agriculture and, of course, climate change – will not disappear. The dreamlike early sunshine does not only burden the toadstools. The climate is changing and thus animals and plants are being driven out of their habitat.
“Most species are on the move because of climate change, because some parts of their habitat are less apt for them than they once were,” said Chris Thomas, an evolutionary biologist at DW’s University of York .
This also requires a more differentiated approach to nature conservation.
“We need a change of perspective,” says Thomas. “We should find it completely okay when a new species settles and does not mourn, for example, when a former inhabitant of a protected area disappears – set the case that the species as a whole is not endangered.
Still, at the end of a long, busy day, the volunteers in the dunes of Sefton Coast hope their new pond will catch the toads so much that they will use it during the mating season, helping to preserve the local population.
But Hampson brakes the hope for quick successes. “It takes eight to ten years for the toad to really tell how a population is changing,” he says. “For a healthy population, you really need a mix of different sizes, and if they’re all about the same size, it just shows it was a good breeding year, it takes time.”