Record to Victory

by Ben Mott

image courtesy of mael Balland/unisplash

There has been growing effort in recent times to help prevent the inevitable: an ecological apocalypse caused by habitat destruction, pollution, and the release of greenhouse gas emissions, among other factors. Looking at the science, there is no doubt that these various forms of degradation are having effects on the environment. However, not everyone has the power to help reverse these at the individual level. In my opinion, there is something that every individual can do to help inform scientists and conservationists who are devising ways to help prevent this ecocide: Recording wildlife. This makes perfect sense, as we can’t protect wildlife and wild habitats if we don’t know the true extent of a species’ range or the requirements that they need. That is one of the most basic fundaments of conservation – however, it seems to be left out of a large portion of the messages provided by various conservation and environmental organisations.

Let’s look at an example to demonstrate this, using the humble common toad (Bufo bufo). A large proportion of the general public will be familiar with common toads. They are a regular visitor to garden ponds but they can also be found in a number of environments. You may have seen one whilst walking your dog in the woods, or whilst on a run through the park on a dew-soaked spring morning. Until fairly recently, common toads were regarded as a protected species and the government had even devised a Biodiversity Action Plan to aid in their conservation. Despite all of this, no one had any idea on the population trends of the species, as no long-term monitoring had been carried out. After all, why would it? As their name suggests, common toads are, well, common. Or, at least they were. A pair of researchers compared the data collected from volunteers around the country that help toads cross roads on their spring migration back to breeding ponds in 2016. What they found was shocking. In the thirty years preceding 2016, common toad populations across Great Britain had declined by 68%.

How could we not have noticed this and what can be done to reverse these declines? Common toads are not an isolated case, but it seems that there are a number of species suffering the same fate, although the jury is still out because the data is yet to be crunched. Common toads tend to breed in the same ponds each year, making annual migrations in the spring following their winter slumber, to breed en masse. Sometimes this means hundreds, if not thousands, of them will try to cross busy roads during rush-hour in mid-late February, or other such human-made hazards. Without the dedication of volunteers and a handful of mitigation techniques, these populations would surely go extinct. As a species we also suffer from what is known as Shifting Baseline Syndrome. We’re unable to imagine the wealth of wildlife our grandparents saw in nature, as unfortunately many of us are disconnected from the natural world. Instead, we just accept the levels of biodiversity that we see as normal, even if populations are in decline. Due to this change in perception, the common toad (among many others) was slowly slipping away to extinction in Great Britain. Thankfully, the alarm bell was sounded at the right time.

So, what can be done?

This is where you come in. Everyone who has a smartphone has the ability to record species in real time, thanks to the powers of apps and the internet. I’d encourage you while you’re out and about exploring the natural world, to record as much wildlife as you can -- from the rarer species to the more mundane. You can do this by using apps such as iRecord, and if your expertise is not to the same level as Sir David Attenborough, there are a number of useful apps that aid in identification of everything, from spiders to toadstools. You have the power in your hands to aid conservation, and I bet you don’t even know it. The records you submit will be readily available to conservation organisations working on the ground to protect both species and their habitats, ensuring their longevity for generations to come. For a long time, common species have been overlooked, and the common toad is a great example. Now we have the power and the ability to turn a corner, and ensure that such declines don’t continue unnoticed. If such trends are observed, they can be mitigated before it is too late. The power is in your hands.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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