Mathilde Baker-Schommer of Wirral Wildlife writes about The Natterjack: a rare toad that can be heard and – if you are exceptionally lucky – seen, in Hoylake’s Red Rocks sand dunes:
If you go for a walk along the sand dunes at Red Rocks on a still evening from April till June, you may be greeted by a chorus of loud croaking calls. These are produced by male natterjack toads as they expand their large air sac. They leave their burrows at night to ‘sing’ to females and attract them to pools along the dunes and in the saltmarsh for spawning.
Their hind limbs are quite short, so they run instead of hopping. ‘Natter’ may be derived from the old English word ‘nadder’, meaning ‘crawling’
You are more likely to hear natterjacks than to see them as during the day and when hibernating in winter, both males and females hide in burrows in the dunes. Unlike the brown Common toad, they are olive green with orange-brown patterns and have a distinctive bright yellow stripe down their back. Their hind limbs are quite short, so they run instead of hopping. ‘Natter’ may be derived from the old English word ‘nadder’, meaning ‘crawling’.
When they are out of their burrows, natterjacks need to search for food which consists of small animals such as spiders, woodlice, earthworms, beetles and other insects.
In Britain, natterjacks only occur in heathlands and in sand dunes near the coast and only as far north as Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland. To breed they need shallow, not over-grown pools which warm up easily. Suitable habitats have shrunk, become damaged or vanished in many places, and so have the populations of these toads. They are, however, thriving at Ainsdale, along the Sefton ‘green coast’, helped by suitable management. From there, some years ago when the Hoylake population had dwindled, natterjack spawn was brought, under licence, to the Red Rocks dunes where special breeding pools were created and fenced off to protect the toads in all stages of development.
Many people will remember the hot summer of 2006 not just because of the Golf Championship on the Royal Liverpool Golf Course but also because it was a bumper summer for natterjacks. Large numbers of toadlets were produced which delighted many of the visitors and their children. How many of these baby natterjacks grew to become sexually mature during the following three to four years is not known. In 2012, some croaking was heard from pools in the saltmarsh and a few weeks later, good numbers of tadpoles were spotted.
Clearly, the natterjack population in the Red Rocks dunes is small and still vulnerable. From eggs to tadpoles, toadlets and fully-grown adults, these little animals face many hazards. Birds, tadpoles of Common toad (which develop earlier than the natterjack tadpoles), Water beetles, Hedgehogs and Foxes may eat them, Dogs and human feet may damage them. They may be helped in the future if new breeding pools are created – which is costly – and disturbance of natural pools as well as the sand dunes is kept to a minimum.
Natterjacks are protected from egg to adult under the law and must not be picked up. They are a feature of the Red Rocks Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which includes the extensive reed bed.
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