Herpetology - the study of amphibians and reptiles

Herpetofauna habitat

Before a brief discussion of the more specialised habitats it is a good idea to look at the kind of more general habitats used by our widespread species. We should, after all, remember that although widespread none of them are really "common" any more and their modern day populations are a tiny fraction of what they used to be.

Simplistically, almost any habitat that is not totally barren can provide a home to at least one of our widespread species. Thus, as an example, the Common Lizard can be found in open woodland, wood and meadow fringes, marsh bog, heathland, vegetated sand dunes, rail and road embankments, vegetated brown field sites and even gardens. This is a far from complete list but gives a good idea of habitat type. Each of these habitats also provides a potential home for at least one other Uk herp species - frequently more. But, many of these habitats are under constant threat from development, agriculture and vandalism - often evidenced by fire.

Most of these habitats are outside our control as individuals but one particular habitat used by many herps which IS in our control is gardens. So, I will concentrate on them.

Gardens as herp habitat

Throughout much of the country, simply ensuring that your garden is herp friendly will be enough for them to move in and take up residence quite naturally. In my case, for example, although I live on the outskirts of a town, I am still separated from natural habitat by at least two roads with their corresponding houses and gardens. Nonetheless, without any introductions, all three newt species, Common frogs and Common toads, Slowworms and Grass snakes are frequently seen. Common lizards are seen occasionally despite a high cat population (these have become more frequent recently as one of our cats does not tolerate interlopers and he just likes to watch the animals!) and on a couple of occasions we have even been lucky enough to see an adder in the garden. All of these animals appeared within three years of making the garden herp friendly.

So, what did we do? And can you do it? It is actually very simple. The very first thing we did was to install a large pond. With sufficient size it was easy to ensure enough variation in depth to satisfy most amphibian species - and certainly the widespread ones. And, indeed, the amphibians started to appear within a few months. The remainder of the garden was very mixed but it included significant amounts of perennial dense vegetation - in our case mainly heathers because I love them, they are easily maintained and actually suppress most weeds. There were also loose stone rockeries, fixed stone areas which included built in holes for toads etc to hide in together with the odd log pile and a compost heap. The extreme end of the garden was allowed to grow more or less wild in order to encourage other wildlife as well.

Even the smallest garden will allow at least some of these features. You can also visit both www.arc-trust.org and http://www.herpconstrust.org.uk where you can find more information and downloadable leaflets.

Critical and Endangered Habitats

There are two specific forms of habitat which are critical to almost all of our endangered reptiles and amphibians - and these habitats themselves have been largely destroyed by human activity. In fact, this is the primary reason behind the frighteningly large reduction in the animal's numbers together with other flora and fauna which are dependent on them. These two are:-

Even now, of these two habitats we have more than our share of them within Europe. And yet that share represents less than 10% of what there once was in this country alone - and a truly miniscule proportion of what there once was in Europe.

One of the finest expanses of dune and heath in the North-West of England is now called Merseyside - a truly vast conurbation. And the finest in the South of England is now the towns of Poole and Bournemouth and their environs. But, as though burying such huge swathes of beautiful scenery under vast towns and industry, what little was left, was rapidly converted to holiday camps, caravan parks, unnecessary and now undesired Forestry plantations full of alien trees that support almost no native life, other agricultural uses and so on. Last but not least, heath in particular has proven the subject of many arson attacks and sand dunes are under constant threat from excessive use by holidaymakers failing to respect and use boardwalks or to keep out of fenced areas.

Both of these habitats need maintenance, protection and enhancement. You can take part in some of these activities in some places. (See my "What can I do" page? As a minimum, however, I would ask you all to respect those habitats and to at least protect them from any damage you might cause wholly unintentionally. Don't leave rubbish of any sort - this can cause the death of animals, often slowly and painfully. Use paths and boardwalks and keep out of fenced off areas. Do not play with fire brooms and the like - they are the first line of defence against fire. Don't run up and down sand dunes - every time you do so you could be destroying hundreds of animals and their eggs.

Enjoy the habitat for what it is. Enjoy its peace, enjoy its splendour. Listen to the birds and insects singing; watch for the splendid  colour contrasts of a male adder slithering into the vegetation; the stupendous beauty of a Sand Lizard, which wouldn't look out of place in tropical jungle, basking in an opening in the vegetation, while an iridescent dragonfly wings its way past you.

The rewards for simply pausing, looking and listening in these wonderful, so rare and so endangered habitats are immeasurable.