ARC's Conservation Director, Jim Foster reflects on this year's annual conference and share some delegate highlights

The Herpetofauna Workers’ Meeting is the annual conference for anyone interested in conserving reptiles and amphibians, and this year its 37th iteration took place in Fareham, Hampshire on 3rd and 4th February. With herp diversity highest in southern England, it is perhaps a surprise that the event rarely graces these parts, but the aim has always been to rotate it around the country, giving people all over Britain a chance to join in. Organised as a joint Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) and Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG UK) conference, the meeting is targeted to both volunteer and professional audiences, and this year saw a record attendance of just under 250 people.

The meeting got off to a memorable start with an opening address from Chris Packham, variously known as a broadcaster, naturalist, writer and activist. Chris is also a Patron of ARC, with a long-standing interest in reptiles and amphibians. His opening lines were, literally, poetry – the audience were rapt as he beautifully captured the sheer pleasure we all get from observing sand lizards and great crested newts in the wild. Chris went on to challenge our sector to do more and be bolder in pursuit of our shared goals.

A combination of presentations and workshops followed, and there was too much to cover here, so I’ll be deliberately selective (with apologies to those not mentioned). The opening trio of presentations covered our native snakes. We heard how habitat fragmentation reduces gene flow in adders (Ben Owens, Bangor University), how fungal disease seems to reduce survival in grass snakes (Steve Allain, DICE, BTO and ZSL), and the many ways in which partnership through the Snakes in the Heather project has helped reptile conservation (ARC colleagues Ben Limburn and Owain Masters).

Ryan Montgomery, presenting a talk about combining habitat suitability modelling with community science to conserve Northern Ireland’s common lizards. A workshop about enforcing the legislation protecting amphibians and reptiles.

A highlight for many, according to the folks I spoke to, was the update on introduced alpine newts in Ireland, engagingly presented by Éinne Ó Cathasaigh (Herpetological Society of Ireland). Éinne pointed out what ideally should be done in the light of the alarming situation, in which the introduced newts now occupy a large area, posing risks to native biodiversity. Nikki Glover’s (University of Salford, Wessex Water) talk on using detector dogs to locate great crested newts was another that had people chatting in the coffee breaks. It was a great example of applied science, and the video of her dog sniffing out newts was a conference highlight. The ongoing declines of common toad described by Silviu Petrovan (University of Cambridge, Froglife Trust) were pretty worrying. Yet Silviu was keen to stress that there were some glimmers of hope in the data, and the fact that a large body of evidence has been collected should help to focus minds on recovery solutions.

Workshops gave people a chance to discuss topics in a little more depth, and covered local conservation action, data verification, Biodiversity Net Gain, and law enforcement. We hope that these will prompt some new thinking, projects and action. Having co-led the enforcement workshop I was delighted to hear how our advice has practical application for several delegates embroiled in difficult cases where it looks like the law has been broken.

Previous Herpetofauna Workers’ Meetings hosted early discussions on changing licensing options to deal with development impacts on great crested newts, dating back around a decade. Delegates seemed pleased to have two speakers (Duncan Brown from Natural England, and Andrew Buxton from NatureSpace) talk about the results, now that this approach has been in place for several years. Presentations with a local flavour ended the conference, including observations on leeches feeding on toads (Angie Julian, ARG UK), and the scope for sand lizard recovery in the New Forest (Paul Edgar, Natterjack Ecology).

The “technical” sessions were leavened by plenty of time for networking in breaks, and those making a long weekend of it had two evenings in which to catch up informally. Friday night saw the traditional meal, and on Saturday we had a gala dinner, a raffle raising funds for grass roots conservation, plus the “Have I Got Newts For You?” quiz. I will never fail to be impressed by delegates’ creativity and sense of fun, with the quiz yielding some fantastically unprintable limericks, and model newt larvae capable of catching flying worms.

As well as all the delegates who came along, I’d like to sincerely thank ARC and ARG UK colleagues for their months of planning, and hard work over the weekend, to make the conference happen. The sponsors deserve a special mention, as their kind contributions mean that ARC can keep delegate prices at a modest level, making the meeting more affordable in the face of rising costs – the full list of sponsors is shown below,

For those who couldn’t attend the conference or just want to look back the full programme and presentation abstracts can be downloaded below. I’m already looking forward to the 2025 meeting.

Download programme   Download abstracts

Over the coming weeks we will also be releasing "behind the scenes at HWM2024" podcasts via ARC's YouTube channel. The first of these, featuring an interview with Chris Packham, is available now.

Thank you to this year's sponsors: