48 hours of fascinating talks, workshops and exciting chats with interesting people. This is what went on in Oxford last weekend, 7th-8th of February: Herpetofauna Workers Meeting 2016 (HWM). I was lucky enough to be able to attend this amazing yearly event, where I was surrounded by really inspiring people.
Thanks to the cake and coffee reception first thing in the morning on Saturday, everyone forgot about the horrible weather encountered on the way and started chatting and pouring copious amounts of coffee in their cups. At reception, I received a name tag and the programme, which featured several talks and one workshop per day. After a few croissants and handshakes, the other delegates and I made our way to the main hall for the morning session of talks.
Kicking off was Mr Ben Tapley, from the ZSL, presenting his and his team’s current work in China with the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). Chinese Giant Salamanders have been experiencing extreme declines mainly due to overexploitation: they are often consumed as a delicacy, and this has caused both their disappearance in the wild and the expansion of their farming industry. Therefore, survey work is carried out to discover more about the remaining population abundance, distribution and threats, and to set a long-term monitoring programme. But social work is also sorely needed, as farms are often in bad conditions, and the local perception of this animal usually is negative: they are commonly thought of as scary and ugly. By partnering with local organisations, this project is hopefully going to change the perception of Chinese Giant Salamanders to amazing animals which deserve protection.
Following Ben, Mr John Baker made our wandering imaginations return to the UK, where he has been monitoring adders in Norfolk for more than 10 years. Local habitat restoration impacted the adders, as they were not taken into account during the plans: however thanks to John’s data hopefully in the future management will consider protecting adder hibernation sites and areas around these during major habitat restorations.
Finally, right before the first workshop, Mr Paul Edgar and Mr Rob Cameron updated us on the recent changes in Natural England’s (NE) views, structure and projects, underlining NE’s major interest for new achievements on the ground. It is a time of great change due to an increase of licences granted, the feedback that the UK received on the British EPS, and other major changes within the Government. NE intends to have a greater focus on habitat provision (such as securing habitat for great crested newts), grant advice at earlier stages of developments, as well as targeting the efforts to where the risks are greatest. I was able to participate to their workshop which followed right after, where we discussed four main proposed licensing policy changes. These, if approved, could majourly influence surveying efforts needed, exclusion-trapping-relocating requirements as well as habitat compensation requirements.
After a tasty and well-needed lunch, another set of presentations got us back in the mood for more herpetofauna talk. From grass snakes monitoring, to toad night patrols in Kent, and a very thorough presentation on the aquatic invertebrates a pond surveyor is most likely to find, everyone’s eyes and ears remained fixed on the presenters all afternoon. Rob Gandola, from the Herpetological Society of Ireland, closed this last session with a witty talk about the recent, amazing work carried out by the Society and some students on North Bull Island, the heart of the newly designated Dublin Bay UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Their citizen-science led monitoring project was able to identify the presence of both frogs and lizards on the island, and discover that their populations are healthy and breeding. Some funny anecdotes, such as confused frogs hopping into the surf at night, made everyone leave the hall with a smile.
However, the first day of the HWM did certainly not end here. In the evening everyone gathered again for informal drinks, before suiting up (or not) and heading back to the main hall – which was in the meanwhile turned into a fancy dining hall. A three course meal (featuring my first sticky toffee pudding ever!), accompanied with great chats and banter really livened up the night. After an exhilarating herpetofauna-based (obviously) quiz, which included a hilarious masquerade round, a few more drinks and jokes, everything turned into a great party.
The great party meant that Sunday morning was a bit of a rough start, but equally extremely interesting. The day started with the second workshop – which for me was on Reptile Surveying Guidelines. There were many consultants and experts in the workshop, which made it really valuable for me since I have very little experience in the field. We discussed pros and cons of different existing guidelines, as well as proposing our own ideas on what guidelines should include. After a second round of coffee and chocolate biscuits, we had two sessions of talks. In my opinion, the most interesting talk was Dr Jeremy Biggs‘ from the Freshwater Habitats Trust, which was on the use of eDNA analysis for detecting great crested newts. Last year the first successful national survey of these newts was completed succesfully. This methodology revealed itself to be very inexpensive and easy to use for volunteers as part of the PondNet project, through which almost 350 ponds were analysed – 25% of whuch were found hosting great crested newts. eDNA stands for “environmental DNA”, which is DNA that is released into the water by organisms from their skin, eggs and other means, and can be analysed to find out what organisms live in the body of water sampled. Volunteers are given a simple eDNA kit to collect water samples, which can then be sent to a lab for analysis. To date, eDNA cannot be used to evaluate abundance of organisms yet, but research in the topic is advancing quickly. The PondNet project is picking up again this year, and hopefully 2017, which will provide national trends as a basis for long term monitoring.
Other great talks and discussions continued for the rest of the day, until about 4PM, when we sadly had to start to pack up. It was such a wonderful and inspiring weekend! I particularly appreciated the diversity of people present, with the most varied backgrounds but unified by a common passion. Many thanks to ARG UK and ARC Trust and all the organisers of this amazing meeting, I definitely hope to be able to participate next year!