Gormley and the trendy naturalists should end this natterjack nonsense

RTE’s environment correspondent announced on Monday that the natterjack toad is “unique to Castlemaine” and more than 40 farmers have signed up to save the toad.

The farmers are being paid €500 for the first two shallow ponds that they build in each hectare to facilitate the breeding of natterjacks.

According to one Kerry farmer, there is no money left in sheep farming — so they are going to farm natterjacks?

Dr Ferdia Marnell, head of animal ecology at the National Parks and Wildlife Service, described the latest initiative as “a recreation process” no less. They are building a necklace of pools in the area to provide breeding grounds for the natterjacks.

Well, God made the world in only six days. Maybe he was in a hurry and cut some corners, so now the National Parks and Wildlife Service is going to do it right this time. The natterjacks need shallow ponds surrounded by short grass to feed on.

John Gormley, Minister for the Environment and leader of the Green Party, was interviewed in Castlemaine for the Morning Ireland programme.

“Castlemaine is the only area of this country where the natterjack exists,” he stated. “We know that elsewhere where we have dug the ponds that it has thrived and I am quite sure that we can get the population up and running again.”

Yes, he said Castlemaine is “the only place”, but the natterjack is already thriving in ponds dug elsewhere. Surely that means he knew it was not confined to Castlemaine. In the midst of all the Government talk about cutbacks, I wonder how much that little publicity stunt cost? It looks suspiciously like Gormley did not know what he was talking about.

Any number of people in Kerry could have told him there are natterjacks elsewhere in the county. In fact, they can be found in more than half a dozen sites, such as Dooks golf club where that toad is on their emblem. It has also been the source of some controversy in the Castlegregory area for almost 20 years.

In 1987, the government announced a concerted effort to promote tourism as a means of tackling unemployment. Golf was targeted and several new courses were planned around the country. A nine-hole course was built at Stradbally, near Castlegregory, but not before it ran into opposition from that corps of trendy naturalists.

Dr Catherine McMullin of An Taisce called on the golf committee to forget about the course and set up an interpretive centre instead. “Even at this late stage,” she wrote on August 7, 1989, “the alternative usage as an interpretive centre should be considered.” Of course, the fickle trendies later turned against interpretive centres. “That letter was written before we realised that an interpretive centre was a monstrous building with a huge car park around it,” Dr McMullin later explained. It seems there were a lot of things that An Taisce people did not realise because their opposition to the golf course at Stradbally was the height of obtuse obstructionism.

They waged a campaign mainly on the spurious grounds that the new course would interfere with the breeding of the natterjack toad, which was first introduced to this country in sand brought as ballast by ships in the early 19th century. It can be found in 17 countries in Europe as well as in the Maherees, and at least seven other sites in Kerry.

Despite all the hype and the contrary pronouncements of some high-profile naturalists, the Stradbally land on which the golf course was built was not a natterjack breeding ground, but it became one when the golf course introduced three shallow ponds.

“All three ponds, and the drainage channels, have been heavily used by natterjack and all contained between hundreds and tens of thousands of well-grown tadpoles,” Dr TJC Beebee of the University of Surrey noted when he visited the area in 1991 to compile a report commissioned by the Council of Europe.

Dr Beebee presumed there had been no surveys of the natterjack in the area prior to the golf course. He therefore confidently concluded the area had been an important breeding ground that “must have supported a large local toad population”.

A number of surveys had actually been conducted in the area before the golf course was built. Dr Maria Gibbons from UCG had been monitoring and researching the Kerry toad populations on and off since 1981. There was therefore a wealth of information available. Most of it had been presented to the Wildlife Service in reports published in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1986.

“As far as I am aware (and I have been in Kerry for six breeding seasons), there were no toad breeding sites, at least during the 1980s, existing in the area now occupied by the nine-hole golf course in Stradbally, before the development of that course,” Dr Gibbons explained at the height of the controversy. “Now, of course, the toads are breeding in the ponds and drains on the course. Toads would have always used this area for foraging during the summer and that is presumably how they discovered the existence of the new golf course ponds in the first place,” she continued.

“However, it can be said that the ponds on the Stradbally golf course have, at least for the moment, become significant toad breeding sites in the context of their overall numbers in Co Kerry,” Dr Gibbons added.

Dr Beebee acknowledged that “evidently Dr Gibbons has more extensive knowledge of the Castlegregory area than I do”.

He was astounded by the number of natterjacks in the area when he visited. “The rapid use of the new golf course ponds by so many natterjacks is inexplicable on the basis of my studies of this species over 20 years,” he wrote.

THE golf course, with the shallow ponds as hazards surrounded by short grass, proved ideal breeding grounds for the natterjacks. Yet when the golf club sought to extend the course to 18 holes they were blocked on the grounds that this would interfere with the natterjacks.

The toads have thrived for years on golf courses not only in Dooks, but also Royal Birkdale in England.

The natterjack issue highlighted the irresponsibility of those who waged that spurious campaign based on bad science. They were frustrating the introduction of new breeding grounds. Stradbally now accounts for more than 25% of the natterjacks in this country, and this is the process they are copying in Castlemaine.

When the same golf architect tried to design a course in the sand hills near Inch, on the other side of the Dingle Peninsula, in 2003, however, he ran into even more ridiculous objections. The golf course would supposedly interfere with the breeding of the natterjack and, wait for it, Atlantic salmon.

No natterjacks breed in the area earmarked for the golf course, as there are no ponds there. Of course, if they put in a few ponds, they probably would breed and that would cost the taxpayer nothing.

Is there anyone so gullible as to believe a golf course could interfere with Atlantic salmon when there are no rivers on the sand spit and no plans to do anything with the shoreline? The irresponsibility of these impractical environmentalists is turning the poor natterjack into a symbol for wanton waste. If the minister is serious about the natterjack, he should get practical and rectify that disgraceful situation.

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