We are a small, informal grassroots conservation group dedicated to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in Bedfordshire. We are affiliated to the Bedfordshire Natural History Society, we are also members of the Beds Heathland Forum. In the past, we have helped draft Species Action Plans (SAPS) for both Bedfordshire Adders and Great Crested Newt. We are also affiliated with the Amphibian and Reptile Groups UK (ARG UK), the organisation that helps with coordinating regional ARGs.
We welcome both people who prefer to work as individuals, and people who prefer to work in cooperation with others through the Group. We occasionally organise outings and training sessions, for our members. These include such activities as workshops, particularly for people who wish to qualify for a GCN license. It doesn't matter if you've never surveyed for a newt or a lizard before, we'll be able to help train you and pair you up with someone to help generate data in your local area. At present membership is free, all you need to do to become a member is contact us.
At present, much of our activity has been concentrated on specific sites in the south of the county. We are only too aware of how little we know about North Bedfordshire. Bedfordshire is richer in herps than one might expect, our aim to try to map as much as this diversity as possible, through the use of targetted surveys and casual observations. If you spot any amphibians or reptiles in Bedfordshire, please report them using the appropriate tab above. Much of Bedfordshire is very poorly surveyed for amphibians and reptiles, we simply do not know what is there. Parts of the county are under severe development pressure and we hope to get a good picture of what is there before it is too late. If are interested in joining the group, and surveying you local patch for either amphibians or reptiles, please get in touch.
As well as the common species, we are also aware of two introduced species: midwife toads and marsh frogs, with one re-introduction: natterjack toads.
A planning appeal
Who wants to get involved in this sort of proceedings? Is there any point?
We are posting our account of this experience in the hope that it may be of interest, and use, to others.
The background can be traced on our related web site http://www.toadlift.webs.com. Go to home page then click ‘Planning Objections’. Anyone wanting to know the precise details of the proposed plans can view them from the Central Beds Website by following the reference: Planning – View a planning application and quoting: CB/10/00518.
Last year Biggleswade Town Council applied for outline planning permission to construct a health centre plus playing fields, pavilion and car park on an area to the east of the town known, rather vaguely, as ‘land east of Saxon Drive’. The application was turned down by Central Beds and the Town council appealed. The hearing was last Wednesday October 12 in a room at the Council Offices at Chicksands.
Very briefly, the position is this. The Town Council (or at least two members of it) want to build a health centre etc. on land which is outside the development ‘envelope’. There is new, extensive house building on ‘arable desert’ to the east of Biggleswade but this proposed health / recreation area is the other side of what will be a by-pass around Biggleswade. The land they want to build on has developed into a good wild life site. Badgers and foxes frequent the whole area. Recently the Scouts planted 100 trees to celebrate their 100th anniversary. Under the proposed plans these will mostly disappear under tarmac. From the amphibian’s point of view, it is part of their terrestrial habitat. Just beyond the southern end of the development there is a pond (Richard’s Pond, see photo gallery) which is good for the common amphibians and invertebrates. An ECO 500 toad tunnel connects this with the old balancing pond, see BHS Bulletin 64 (1998).
We had never attended such a meeting before and had little idea what to expect. Since we had already submitted written observations on the plans, at every stage, we felt that our only purpose in attending the meeting was to answer questions on what we had submitted. As a general principle we had been told ‘stick to your area of specialisation i.e. the amphibians. That might have been good advice had other people adhered to it. A certain amount of jargon was used which neither of us was familiar with, ‘conditions’ and ‘reserved matters’ both cropped up.
The hearing was informal with all participants sitting around a table. The Secretary of States’s Inspector began by trying to get the two opposing sides on opposite sides of the table. Apart from us two council officers were there to speak against giving outline planning permission: one from the planning office, the other the county ecologist. Two people spoke for granting outline planning permission: one was from a planning/law firm, the other was an ecologist. Two local councillors (a husband and wife who are both on both the Town and Central Beds Councils) sat as ‘crossbenchers’ though the health centre / sports’ pitches scheme is said to be their idea. One said she wanted to speak only as ‘a long-term resident of Biggleswade’, not as a councillor, the other said he did not want to speak. Also attending, but not speaking was a representative from the Wildlife Trust and a member of the public.
We did not take detailed notes of the whole meeting so the following is limited to the sections we thought most important.
The informality of the proceedings came as a surprise. We had imagined that only people who had given formal notice would be able to speak. We had also imagined that discussion would centre on technicalities relating to planning law and environmental impact.
Instead the councillor ‘speaking as a long-term resident’ insisted on making a number of subjective points about existing medical facilities and the demand for playing fields. As far as we could tell the identity between speaking as a councillor and as a resident became increasingly blurred. We were eventually provoked into asking whether we could attempt to rebut this ‘as long-term residents etc.’ The chairman agreed but we had not come prepared to talk about these matters and found it difficult.
The representative of Central Beds spoke briefly about the Council’s position confining herself to technical and legal arguments relating to planning law. Alternative sites were still under discussion and the proposed site was outside the ‘planning envelope’. One of the main arguments in favour of putting the health centre on this site is that nowhere else suitable has been found nearer to the town centre, and planning guidelines do not exclude the possibility of building if a suitable site cannot be found inside the planning envelope. In fact there are other possible sites which are currently being considered by Central Beds.
The ecologists on either side said very little.
The other side’s representative did not confine himself to legal matters. Instead he expressed a set of opinions about the site and the area in general which made us rub our ears in disbelief. In particular it was stated (not argued) that not all buildings are harmful to the environment; they can be attractive; there is nothing attractive about the landscape as it is at present.(!) We stuck to our brief and said nothing.
The long-term resident’s intervention
At one point the ‘long-term resident’ intervened. She could not understand what the argument was about anyway. Football pitches are green-field sites and must therefore be good for biodiversity. To our amusement she was corrected by her own side, namely the ecologist, who pointed out that football pitches are not hot spots of biodiversity. His words were intended to be tactful.
Back to the arguments
The outline planning application showed the whole area covered in buildings, car parks and a large number of sports’ pitches. They now tried to argue that there was plenty of land within the development for enhancement of the environment for protected species. Since there was no fixed number of pitches, there was plenty of space for biodiversity and protected species within the development – but all this could be sorted out after permission has been granted for the development to go ahead. ‘Exceptional circumstances’ were cited in this respect, though when we asked what they were we received no answer; just a blank stare. As compensation we were promised connectivity with existing sites and within the development. Thus the developers reckon they can create high value habitat within the development with the result that the environment will be enhanced. The standard of these arguments reflected the same grasp of biodiversity issues as that shown by ‘the long-term resident’.
The developers thought a survey, which would cost £60,000, is unnecessary and can be dealt with by ‘conditions’. Central Beds council, on the other hand, said they would not want to grant planning permission before a survey and cited Woolley v. Cheshire East Borough Council and Millennium Estates Ltd, 5 June 2009. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/WoolleyVsCheshireEastBC_tcm6-12832.pdf
A final intervention
Just before proceedings ended another intervention came from the other councillor, though presumably speaking as another ‘long-term resident’. The essential thing, he suddenly opined, was managed land: the land was not managed enough. The result, he continued, was invasions of travellers and their fierce dogs. Why bring travellers up now? They had not been mentioned before. In any case they would do as much damage to an expensive-to-maintain playing field as a wildlife site.
There were no applications for costs.
The site visit
That was the end of the hearing but a site visit followed. We were allowed to point things out but not present arguments. So we indicated where the grass snakes had recently been spotted, where the trees had just been planted and offered to show the inspector the pond. Before we got there we were intercepted by a lady who had been keeping horses on the site for 40 years. She had been a good tenant: why was she suddenly now being threatened with eviction? The inspector said, quite rightly, that he had to ignore her comments.
We took him down to the pond which, it has to be admitted, looks rather sorry for itself but at least it holds water which is more than can be said for many water bodies this year.
The result of the appeal will be announced in about a month’s time. No one seemed ready to predict what it would be.
A final thought: the representative from the Wildlife Trust said that the attitude that a pesticide saturated arable field was of comparable ecological value to (for example) a traditional hay meadow was still widespread. What have English Nature / Natural England / David Attenborough been doing all these years?
A good example of how little we know. We recently investigated a pond at Apsley Guise. Anything less promising it would be hard to imagine. A large water body totally devoid of weed and invertebrate life but full of GCN eggs (see picture). What are the larvae eating? A lovely heathland site but with very few records – what else is there?
This is really a Buckinghamshire record but never mind. The Greensand Trust has taken over management of an area comprising 210 acres of parkland and mixed woodland, called the Rushmere estate. Although there are wonderful opportunities for creating herp friendly sites the present terrain did not look too auspicious: too much shade; water bodies too big.
Nonetheless an adder has been sighted right by the bungalow which will be the new GST office.
The new Greensand Trust reserve, Sandy Smith, has a pond originally dug for duck shooting and now known as the ‘decoy pond’. This spring we bottle trapped, netted, torched and egg searched. No sign of GCN except a single egg. Having found it we did not unwrap any more.
On August 16 we tried netting for larvae. The first time Sue put her net in we found a GCN! (see picture). An hour later that was still our only one. Plenty of smooth newt of course. It is obviously a tiny population and it will be interesting to see how it develops. Just shows how you have to use all available methods, but for presence of species egg searching is the best.
It will soon be the time when amphibians will be returning to their breeding ponds, followed by the emergence of reptiles shortly after. With this in mind, we'd like to invite you to attend the BedsRAG AGM on the 23rd January at 7 pm. The meeting will be held via Microsoft Teams, and a link will be circulated ahead of the meeting, to those that have confirmed their attendance. If you'd like to attend, please email Steven Allain so that he can send you the link.
The main reason for calling the AGM, is to help elect new members into the various open committee roles we currently have within BedsRAG. These include roles such as Amphibian Officer, Reptile Officer, Membership Officer and Data Officer. If you'd like to know more about the roles that are available, and would like to put yourself forward for election, please get in touch and we'll happily provide this information. We're looking forward to electing a new committee to help BedsRAG flourish in 2022, including the election of a new Chairman, as our current one is stepping down to a change in personal circumstances.
Aside from the formalities, Steven Allain shall be giving a brief talk on a national project he's been coordinating on the topic for midwife toads, titled 'On the trail of midwife toads'. Some of these surveys have been conducted in Bedfordshire, and we're lucky to have been awarded a small grant through the Bedfordshire Natural History Society, to enable this. Our research us uncovered a number of new populations across the country, that were previously unrecorded. Steven will go into some detail as to why this may be, as well as presenting some of his results from the project.
At the AGM, we also hope to give a quick overview of the areas we wish to focus our surveys on in the coming season. This will include training for those that require it, which we hope will allow them to also complete surveys in their local area, which have been suitably identified. To facilitate this, please log into the ARGWEB (http://surrey-arg.org.uk/SARGWEB.php?app=LogIn&Org=BedsRAG) and please complete both 'My Volunteer Preferences' and 'My Volunteer Agreement' under the 'My BedsRAG Account' icon. This will ensure that you're both kept in the loop with any developments relating to your preferences, and covered by our insurance for any of the surveys/activities. If you do not sign the volunteer agreement, you will not be able to take part in any of the activities.
We look forward to seeing you in a few weeks time, but for now please enjoy the rest of the festive season.
Bedfordshire is home to a number of amphibian and reptile species, these may be hard to differentiate to the untrained eye. We've therefore provided the following information to help ensure that species identifications are correct, especially when it comes to recording. The links provided before should help most people when it comes to establishing the identity of an amphibian or reptile. If you're still stuck, then please feel free to contact us.
Amphibians tend to be found in close proximity to water, especially in the spring, although they may be found in terrestrial environments in the summer and autumn. This can sometimes lead to confusion between newts and lizards.
The following amphibians can be found in Bedfordshire:
As far as we're aware, there are no populations of palmate newts, which tend to prefer more upland and acidic sites.
If you're unable to tell which amphibian species you've found, or you're dealing with a young individual, then we recommend this helpful guide from ARG UK.
Reptiles tend to be found in drier habitats than amphibians, they posses scales, and are also more agile than amphibians. Like amphibians, they hibernate throughout the winter months, and emerge again in the spring.
The following reptiles can be found in Bedfordshire:
If you're unable to tell which reptile species you've found, then we recommend this helpful guide from ARG UK.