Jane V. Adams – Cause for celebration

Jane is a naturalist, photographer and nature writer living in Dorset. Her work has appeared in books, anthologies and blogs for charities such as The Wildlife Trusts and the International Bee Research Association. When she’s not exploring Dorset’s lanes and countryside she can be found lying on her stomach watching insects in her garden. Jane is currently studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University and can be found: www.janevadams.com and on Twitter @WildlifeStuff Jane’s previous Guest Blogs here can be found here.

Over the past twelve months, have you noticed the changes in the seasons more than in previous years? On the 23rd of March 2020, as we entered the unfamiliar world of lockdown for the first time, did you find yourself noticing the catkins more as you took your ‘daily exercise’, were the bluebells smellier than you had remembered when you walked in the woods in April, and did the unhurried buzz of a bumblebee make you look up from the book you were reading, as warm summer days ambled into autumn? The last year has been hell in so many ways, but maybe one of the positives to come out of lockdown has been a reconnection with, and renewed appreciation for, nature?

Before Christmas, as the days chilled and the nights started arriving too early, I could feel my own reconnection started to wane. Shielding with my ‘clinically vulnerable’ husband, the more I stayed indoors the less attached to the outside I felt. In the kitchen, watching the birds peck seed from the feeder, it was as if I was a goldfish in a bowl; I could see out, but I couldn’t hear, touch or smell the world outside.

Then I received a Facebook memory post. If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably received one, they remind you about a post from years ago, normally something you’d rather have forgotten. Most of the time I scroll past them, but today I didn’t.

Important Announcement: I have mating frogs in the garden pond. Small things make me very happy. January 27th, 2012

Adding a wildlife pond to our garden was one of the first things we did after our move here in 2004. An enthusiastic team of Wildlife Trust trainees descended on the garden one spring morning, and dug, ate cake, lined, drank tea and filled a two by one metre pond with water.

Their hard work was much appreciated and wasn’t in vain, within a year dragonflies and damselflies had taken up residence and were laying eggs, flies and wasps were drinking from the shallows and mason bees were collecting wet mud to line their nests. The first newt arrived – a spotty male palmate with a painterly orange brush stroke down its tail – then one February evening I heard a strange noise as I was bringing in the bins.

Layers of deep croaks rippled across the grass from the direction of the pond, and as I crept towards the noise, watery eyes reflected light from the kitchen window and glowed orange in the semi-darkness. Frogs had arrived. That year it was twenty common frogs, the next thirty, the numbers increasing until a few years later fifty frogs were bundling into my tiny garden pond, and an amphibian orgy of legs and bodies filling what little water there was with eye-staring clumps of spawn.

As a species, we have been fascinated by frogs for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians had a frog-goddess, Heqet, who symbolized fertility, while Aesop, the Greek storyteller, wrote of a frog who tried to inflate itself to the size of an ox. In the New Testament, Revelation, frogs were thought of as being unclean, whereas they are transformative, and kissed in the well-known Frog Prince fairy tale. The frog-spirit, Ch’ing-Wa Sheng, symbolizes good fortune and healing in Chinese culture and more recently, Kermit the frog turns up as the straight man in The Muppet Show. It seems we can’t get enough of frogs. Ceramic frogs are collected and given as gifts, their faces adorn designs on children’s clothes, and cuddly frogs are given as soft toys.

Sadly, their symbolism seems to be stronger than our desire to protect them. In recent RSPB surveys (as part of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch) the number of sightings of frogs in gardens declined between 2014 and 2018 by 17%, with the main reason thought to be a lack of suitable habitat. Diseases, such as Ranavirus, may also be affecting UK populations.

What is clear is that we need to be doing more to help frogs if they are to keep their ‘common’ moniker. We need to dig more ponds – big or small. Leave suitable wild habitat in a corner of our gardens. Record them when we see them. Over the next couple of months, the citizen science survey, PondNet Spawn Survey, is a great place to start.

So, this week I’ve been out in the garden clearing the pond of leaves, optimistic for the reappearance of my garden frogs and getting my nature-fix. At a time when hope is in short supply, when we are all looking for something to look forward to, the sound of a croaking frog really can be a cause for celebration.

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11 Replies to “Jane V. Adams – Cause for celebration”

  1. Excellent blog. At 18 I was living with my grandparents and with my grandad put in a polythene lined pond in the back garden. A year later toads tried to spawn in it. From the beginning pond skaters and water beetles dropped in and the prize must have been the water scorpion that was there for a couple of days. However, the best thing I ever saw was not a direct sighting of its wildlife. From where my bedroom was I could unobtrusively look out and see regular little parties of the local kids come into our garden as if they were trying to steal apples, but in actual fact to lay on their bellies and stare into the pond in utter fascination with what lived there. This was on a notoriously rough council estate where when I was growing up a major activity for small boys was to destroy bird’s nests complete with eggs and chicks, and the adults were air gun fodder.

    I found out later many of those same kids that had crept in to our garden to look at nature in awe had went back to ask or even plead with their parents to get a pond in their own gardens. In every single case they were told no. The spark was there, but encouragement was very rare unless it was to wreck and kill – I once put out a fire a ‘man’ in his twenties had set at the base of a mature tree to show how to bring it down to a group of primary school age children somehow in his care. This is why I get extremely angry with those treating an interest in wildlife as if it’s merely a trendy, idle affectation of the middle classes. That’s a dangerous lie (and nasty to all nature lovers), if anything it’s even more relevant to the lower income it’s free after all and scandalously public money is spent suppressing in the very urban environments where the stimulation it provides would do most good especially with children. I speak from personal experience.

    I’ve done many long walks in the country over the years and one of the striking things is how incredibly rare ponds are. You can easily walk miles and not see a single one in either Suffolk or Falkirk District. There should be a ruling that any area of meadow on a nature reserve over a certain size must incorporate at least one pond of a minimum surface area. That would set a pretty good example, we must have lost hundreds of thousands of ponds we need to get back.

    A canal is essentially an elongated pond so it should be good news that hundreds of miles of them are collectively planned to be re-watered dependent on funding and volunteer availability. A problem is that when reopened the boat traffic can stir up sediments and keep them in a suspended state so there’s usually a fair loss in biodiversity when boat usage becomes regular. If a way can be found to reduce that it would be a big step forward to increasing the wildlife value of hundreds of miles of waterway.

    Wildlife conservation is a hell of a bigger part of restoring and using canals than it used to be, but there’s still more to be done and certain players like Scottish Canals are definitely still not on board. Some of the wildlife trusts are in partnership with canal groups already, but I think conservation groups could still be a bit more proactive, the wildlife on a canal is a massive part of its charm and canals being valuable for wildlife conservation is a great argument for more support for the canal network – truly mutually beneficial. Positive green shoots right now, and potentially an awful lot more to come such as a formalised, official policy across the network for cutting canal side vegetation that maintains access and structural integrity while not compromising its wildlife value.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Les. A fascination for ponds has not dwindled. My neighbours kids knock on the door every year to ‘come and see the frogs’ in our pond. Sadly I think we are the only people with a wildlife friendly pond in our road (Dorset). I grew up in a north London suburb where it was very rare to see any wildlife, other than the odd sparrow, but we did have an amazing park just up the road where I was able to get my wildlife fix. That was 40+ years ago now, but I looked up the park website the other day, and was pleased to see they now hold events and run projects to encourage kids to learn and see wildlife. I spent many an hour catching sticklebacks and bringing them home – chased by the park keeper. I agree with your sentiments regarding ponds and canals. The Million Ponds Projects https://freshwaterhabitats.org.uk/projects/million-ponds has done a lot of good work since 2008, and I know the Canal and Rivers Trust are also working hard to try and increase wildlife habitats https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/canal-habitats-for-nature As you say, some positive green shoots at the moment, let’s hope it continues!

      1. Yes it is incredibly sad and disappointing how very, very few people have wildlife ponds, they’re not exactly high maintenance and they’re incredible just for what can turn up seemingly out of the thin air – water scorpions, diving beetles, giant dragonflies. Some are better than others, but many of the canal restoration groups are genuinely serious about nature conservation. Something I’ve been really pleased about is that a lot of scrub is cleared when canals are being restored and some groups are making a point about making habitat piles and bug hotels from the resulting brash rather than the traditional massive bonfire which for anyone realising what opportunities for conservation were going up in smoke made your heart drop like a stone. The Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust is especially good in this respect and are ahead of some conservation groups that are still burning brash! About 2,500 miles of existing canal where there’s still scope to increase wildlife value and at least another 500 miles of canal that can be reopened.

  2. Les, now they stare into their phone screen. This solves the boredom that existed, so now how do you introduce them to the fascination of wildlife. Getting them up close in Duck Zoos perhaps?

    Citizen science surveys must be one way with interesting feedback and some involvement if possible. Not just for the scientific understanding achieved but to attract a new generation.

    There are some interesting results from the spawn survey from 2015 but I cannot find any later results.
    https://freshwaterhabitats.org.uk/news/big-spawn-count/

    1. Looking on the bright side it also means they’re not relentlessly crashing through the bushes looking for nests, eggs and chicks to stomp on either. Yes there are always those who just through a casual contact with nature would develop a love for it, but they were in a minority it really needs to be fostered by society. There’s a broadcaster called Jimmy MacGregor who is 37 years older than me, but had exactly the same experiences I did, which means he was seeing what I have in the 1930s and 40s rather than 1970s. I remember kids trying to drop bricks on top of the then plentiful water voles in the local canal and the fellow nine year old that had somehow got their hands on a hatchet and was standing at the base of a telegraph pole looking up at a nervous squirrel on top of it. The casual violence towards wild animals was ferocious.

      My point is I don’t think the golden age of children roaming the countryside being in thrall to birdsong and wild flowers ever existed, but I know in spite of everything some at least actually were – the acquaintance who secretly built his own wildflower press and kept it and the pressings hidden beneath his bed. So I’m nowhere near as pessimistic as some because I don’t believe you can lose what you never really had. When children grow up in an environment where it’s far more likely they’ll be taught how to find and destroy birds’ nests rather than how to pond dip what can we expect? I fully believe we can turn things right round if society does what it should and teaches the true value of things. We could and should have areas for wildlife habitats in local parks as much as there should be sections of close mown grass, and savings from maintenance could be redirected towards educational work explaining what they are and what lives there to the local schoolkids.

      You are absolutely right about big citizen science projects as part of the solution, it would help ‘normalise’ being interested in nature. The Scottish primary school I went to for a few years had ‘trout in the classroom’ where a tank and some trout eggs allowed the children to raise young trout (infertile eggs had to be taken out, temperature had to be carefully maintained etc) which were eventually released into the local stream or burn as we call them up here. That never happened when I went there, however, it was dependent on a particularly keen and competent member of the local community coming in to help (he was rightly voted UK River Champion one year) and a local wildlife group that had lottery cash it could use on a discretionary basis. This type of thing has to be standard, mainstream not pot luck as to who’s available in the wider community. The cost would be tiny compared to the ignorance, apathy and destruction if you don’t do it. The conservation organisations should be planning for this, it can’t keep being an optional extra.

    2. Thanks for commenting, Andrew. It’s a shame there doesn’t seem to be survey results since 2015. I’ve just had a look as well.

      I think many children go through phases. They love wildlife when they are very young, but when they get into their teens it’s not quite so ‘cool’ to carry on with the interest.

      However, there seem to be more and more teenagers and young adults with a wildlife interest nowadays – Springwatch/Winterwatch help, Twitter and Instagram is full of the fantastic initiatives they are involved in, helped by organisations such as the fantastic https://www.afocusonnature.org/ (as well as many others). Green shoots…

  3. When I was a kid growing up in the fifties and early sixties ponds were a magnet to all kids. Yes there were the sad, usually older kids that blew up frogs and toads with a straw,but they were actually in the minority. Most kids like me were fascinated we took frog spawn home in the hope of watching them turn into tadpoles, sometimes it even worked. We had it in tanks in school too. I even managed to do it with newt poles, Smooth and Great Crested. At one pond no longer there as it has a house on it, which was full of GC newts we used to spend hours catching them at the end of the visit we would count hem and put them back. Pond life is and was endlessly fascinating and a good way into wildlife.

    1. Sorry if I sounded a miserable old git Paul, I’m actually very hopeful from the innate interest I’ve seen, just frustrated at the lack of parental and educational support to initiate and strengthen it, and then it either evaporates or gets redirected into vandalism. The community woodland we worked in was practically an academy for the latter. There was a reluctance to knuckle down on anti social behaviour – when it was reported to the police the girls and boys in blue often answered that if it was happening in the wood then it wasn’t happening anywhere else or ‘it’s just the glen’. Simultaneously part of the antidote to it, education and an opportunity to do practical conservation were a lottery and generally lacking. I’ve also seen children in area where the parents were notoriously apathetic about recycling (and so much else) become incredibly enthusiastic and happy recyclers because as we were told by a teacher it was the first time they’d been given an opportunity to do something positive. This is appalling and conservation both in providing information and an opportunity for practical application needs to be built into mainstream education, not be peripheral to it. The proposed O’ Level in Natural History is a beginning.

    2. I totally agree Paul. I don’t think that fascination for ponds has changed. I did the same when I was young, and see that same enthusiasm in my neighbours youngsters.

  4. Fabulous Jane, I wish I knew your secret about getting the Wildlife Trust interested? The only way we can get them out the heated office is to wave the cheque book in front of their noses. It has been one of the most disappointing aspects of the projects.
    Our open offer if they wanted to try things, then be our guests, has always been there. And it’s a shame as what we have planned for the up and coming year(s) will be a game changer, and it won’t cost them a penny. The ponds on our nature reserves are generally in a poor state of repair. It was disappointing that the RSPB furloughed their staff, when they had a unique opportunity to let them gain safe, practical experience on their reserves and pay them their FULL salary, but they chose to take the money, which is a pretty good indication of where we are with the management of our charities.
    But that’s not my problem, frogs and ponds are vitally important, the frog especially as a food source although not commonly associated the frog is high on the honey buzzard’s menu.
    Since the autumn we have been digging a whole series of ponds, large and small, acid and neutral. As we have progressed we have got better at each pond and our understanding on what’s required has been refined. It’s simply not the case of digging a hole and hoping, you are moving hundreds of tonnes of soil so we need a plan, but also a very good reason on why you are doing this and it has to fit within the existing habitat. We have tried where possible to link our ponds, so that each one will naturally drain into each other, removed blockages, so that our river system is one open highway around the whole farm. Hopefully with the increase in fish and eels, our otter might decide this is a pretty good place. We have kingfisher banks, the beginnings of a sand martin bank and I would like to create a ‘butterfly’ cliff face, planted with a selection of arable plants. We have also opened up the surrounding areas around these ponds, coppiced and pollarded as much as required, we do have all the species of newts, not a large colony, hopefully they’ll increase. So it’ll be interesting from now on to see just what takes up the offer, the dragons are an interest of mine with 13 dragonfly species and 4 damselfly species recorded as breeding on the farm, I’m more than keen to see what these new ponds yield.

    1. It was quite a few years ago, and they happened to have a team of trainees that needed some practical experience, plus it was a very small pond! Staff numbers have now been reduced and no trainees at the moment – so I don’t imagine it’s something that would happen now. All conservation charities have taken a massive hit financially with Covid-19, I hope they will all get back on their feet but I fear that some won’t. However, the work you have been doing sounds fantastic, and it’s a shame you haven’t been able to get support locally – have you tried the amphibian/reptile orgs or freshwater orgs? 13 dragonfly and 4 damselfly sounds especially good – I just wish I could visit to see them!

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