Saturday, 23 May 2015

Coralroot Orchids

The Coralroot Orchid is found throughout Europe, Asia and North America but it is not as showy and colourful as most other orchids, standing at only 5-14cm tall with tiny flowers measuring around 5mm in length. Despite being found across such are large area they are extremely hard to spot due to their diminutive size with most people walking right past them. In the UK most plants are found in Scotland with a few sites in Northern England and most of the populations are thought to be small.

Here at Sandscale Haws we find them in relatively young dune slacks (wet areas) with short vegetation but it is also found in woodlands, moist boggy forest and infertile swamps across other parts of its range. Grazing with livestock and cutting of vegetation is critical to maintain suitable habitats here as the dunes are no longer mobile enough to create significant areas of pioneer dune slack. It is easily crowded out by other plants in unmanaged areas.

Despite its name Coralroot Orchid doesn’t actually have roots per say, but a branched underground rhizome that superficially resembles coral in appearance. The plant receives most of its nutrients from a fungus that has a symbiotic relationship with Creeping Willow, a shrub that is common across the site. Other species that are generally found in the same sort of areas and are associated with Coralroot Orchid include Variegated Horsetail, Glaucous Sedge, Early Marsh orchid, Marsh Helleborine and Round-leaved Wintergreen.

Back in the late 1980’s and early 90’s Coralroot Orchid was found relatively abundantly across the site in many of the dune slacks, with 1700 plants being recorded in 1989 and 3297 in 1990. Intensive surveys were carried out by staff and volunteers at this time. During recent years however it appears to have been in decline at Sandscale Haws and much of the UK with 2014’s count only being 177 plants and not a single one being recorded in 2013 after the extremely wet year of 2012.

2015 however has turned everything on its head with huge numbers being found across the site. So far we have found them in 4 slacks totalling 898 flowering spikes with 516 of these being found in just one dune slack! We have a few more slacks to check over the next week, so we are hopeful that we will be crossing the 1000 marker which would be amazing as we haven’t seen numbers like these since 1991. Fingers crossed!

We couldn’t have managed these counts without the help of our ever enthusiastic volunteers so a big thank you to them!

Please note: Coralroot Orchids are extremely difficult to find at Sandscale Haws. To avoid any accidental damage to populations we encourage anyone who is interested in seeing them to contact the Rangers for advice before visiting. At times it may be possible to arrange a site visit with a Ranger to view the plants.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Natterjack Season!

Natterjacks in amplexus

 Here at Sandscale Haws we are lucky enough to have the nationally rare Natterjack toads call our site home. We also have one of the largest and most stable populations in the UK with an estimated 500 pairs breeding here each year.

Natterjack toads can be found at only 60 sites across the UK with the Cumbrian coast supporting at least 50% of the UK population and the Duddon Estuary, which we are situated on, being home to approximately 25% of those.

Natterjack numbers have declined drastically in the last century mainly due to habitat loss and as such they are protected by both British and European law making it illegal to kill, injure, disturb and even touch them.

Here at Sandscale the Ranger team have licences to monitor Natterjack numbers every year to see how they do from year to year. 2014 was a great year as we counted over 400 spawn strings and in excess of 40,000 toadlets!

Natterjack toadlets

Unfortunately it’s been a bit of a slow start to 2015 due to the cool spring we’re experiencing and the low water levels across the site. Our first record of the year was on the 7th April in one of our most westerly dune slacks where we found two spawn strings in between common toad spawn strings. Unfortunately due to the lack of rain we’ve had this winter the pool had dried up when we visited it again just 6 days later.
Our first Natterjack sighting of the year though was 8 days later on the 15th when we found a couple of pairs spawning down in the shallow pools on Roanhead beach and again on subsequent days after that. As of the end of April we are now up to 67 spawn strings laid across the site.

Natterjacks in amplexus laying spawn (black strings)

We’ve held a couple of public Natterjack walks in the evenings during April and visited both dune slacks out on the main reserve and our breeding pools near the car park to see what we could find and hear across the site. So far we haven’t heard any chorus’ out on the main reserve but we have had Natterjacks calling at the two breeding pools near the car park and along Roanhead beach, which has been one of the main sites used so far this year. 

Male Natterjack calling

We’re hoping that both temperatures and rainfall pick up a bit soon so that we see more Natterjack numbers and spawn strings but it may be that many Natterjacks give this year a miss if the pools do not refill over the next couple of months. However we still hope to have tens of thousands of Toadlets by mid-June in the sites that have been used.

We’ll keep you posted about how things are going in a couple of months so be sure to check back then.

Male Natterjack

Finally this week saw the extremely worrying news from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation that a new species of Chytrid fungus has been found in the UK. These waterborne fungi have been implicated in dramatic declines and even extinctions in amphibian populations around the world. Whilst this new fungus has not yet been recorded in the wild in the UK it is known that another Chytrid fungus is here and is present at many sites. We urge anyone that visits wetland sites to disinfect their footwear and equipment between sites to stop both the spread of diseases and invasive species. Please follow the advice provided by the GB non-native species secretariat at