Herpetofauna

Photo:Gordon Cragg Herpetofauna: a) A sexually transmitted parasite b) A psychological condition in which female cat owners pay more attention to their cats than their partners (geddit?) c) Protozoa living in the oral mucosa c) Amphibians and reptiles ? If I'd got the answer wrong my recent trip to the Herpetofauna workers' conference in Telford would have given me plenty of shopping time. I had some early reassurance on the way to the Conference Centre when I walked past Telford's bubbling blowing frog clock, but I was a bit nervous even if I'd got the gist of the weekend right. It turns out I shouldn't have worried. The herpy crowd are an enthusiastic and entertaining lot, even though they wear trousers with too many zips and feel compelled to pun terribly, usually about newts. Many of them were from the various Amphibian and Reptile Groups ("ARG"s) of the UK, to whom Habitat Aid bungs a tiny amount of money to via the ARG 100% fund, which is a very good institution. I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible and engaging the presentations were; I enjoy listening to bright young academics, and I didn't feel patronized. There was some inevitable mystification - I was puzzled by the problems with GCNs and gully pots*, for example - but I came away enlightened and enthused, even though I had to leave early and hung over on Sunday morning. I won a rather smart newt mug in Saturday night's raffle, presented by Nick "Bugboy" Baker, which made up for the disappointment of our team coming last in a bizarre post dinner quiz (so far as I remember won by a team called "Slow Worms and Lesbians"). Other Herpy celebs there included Mr Biggs of Ponds, who is planning another major pond exercise with Pond Conservation. What take-aways can I bring you from the world of UK herpetology? First, the bad news. As I've blogged before, herps sit at the unloved end of the conservation spectrum. Snakes are scary and newts are expensive. Because people don't like them we don't spend enough money on them, which means we don't know enough about what they do. This means there is a lack of hard information available to lobby the government to put more money into funding research and protection. It's a vicious circle. Negative public perception and lack of reliable data were common themes running through most of the presentations and discussion groups. Unsurprisingly,the poor old adder featured regularly. In terms of specific issues there's the chytrid fungus to worry about, which was the subject of a nationwide survey last year, and continuing extinctions; I would have liked to have met a Glutinous Snail before it disappeared from England in 2010. There was also the odd elephant galumphing about the conference room, like the lack of clean ponds in the UK. There are some good things happening, however. Ironically, the fact that herps are so far down the pecking order means that current cutbacks aren't affecting government spending on them - even possibly the opposite. Perceptions are changing, partly down to the work ARG groups are doing, and folk are beginning to understand the advantages of having reptiles in their gardens (slow worms, for example, are great slug killers). The more widespread use of SUDS^ is creating new habitat for herps, and everyone seems to be agreed about the basic strategy of linking existing habitats. Our new garden here will be herp heaven, bursting with fantastic habitat, but I was reminded to get the compost heap built ASAP to get some slow worms in. Job now done. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make more money for the ARG Fund. *Great Crested Newts get stuck in road drains ^ Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (swales and ponds)