Promoting Cumbria’s Natterjack Heritage ran for twelve months and was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The project began in 2011 and had two main aims; the first was to increase awareness and understanding of natterjack toads and their habitats within the rural community, the second was to build a network of volunteer natterjack toad recorders in Cumbria, the data would allow the accurate assessment of natterjack populations in relation to the other 27 natterjack breeding sites along the Cumbrian coast.

In Cumbria natterjack toads are known to be present at 27 sites scattered along two stretches of coastline, the first from Barrow in Furness and the second from Allonby to the Solway on Firth. The projects main objective was to gather data on the natterjack communities before deciding which populations were the most vulnerable. The next stage was to link these vulnerable and isolated populations within the two areas, thus forming two large and robust meta-populations.

For Cumbria as a rural and sparsely populated county ARC realised that engagement with Farmers and local land owners was going to play a vital part in the project.  The most realistic way ARC could see to increase community involvement and encourage a more connected landscape was through the governments Environmental Stewardship Schemes (ESS).  The Environmental Stewardship Scheme (ESS) was launched in March 2005 to build upon the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) Scheme, the Countryside Stewardship (CS) Scheme and the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS). 

In addition to creating more robust meta-populations of natterjack toads ARC were also interested in the curious relationship natterjack toads had formed with industrial activities and sites along the Cumbrian coast.  As an opportunistic species, breeding in shallow empheral pools and burrowing into bare sandy soil to hibernate it seemed that a number of industrial sites in Cumbria had offered much needed habitat for the endangered natterjack toad.  As part of the project ARC conducted a social heritage exercise, looking at memories of people who worked on industrial sites in Cumbria which were historically inhabited by natterjack toads. Sites investigated included Millom Iron Works, Workington Iron and Steel Works and Sand and Gravel Quarries at Silloth and North Walney.  This historical aspect of the project allowed ARC to reach out to a new audience, engaging with individuals and groups working on these industrial sites. In return for their valued information ARC organised a series of events, including natterjack toad walks and talks and volunteer tasks which aimed to improve the habitat available for the natterjack toad on these now extinct industrial sites.  

Most people would not consider an operating steelworks or an active sand and gravel quarry to be a good wildlife habitat but for one species these places can be a real ‘Des Res’ – the natterjack toad!

All of the six sites identified by ARC have now ceased in operation and as a result of ecological succession the pioneering natterjack toad would have been effectively squeezed out without intervention by ARC and the dedicated group of volunteers gained through the project. 

A steelworks or sand quarry definitely falls into the ‘disturbed/disrupted/damaged habitat’ category while at the same time providing ideal conditions for natterjacks – lots of open, bare ground for foraging, mounds of sand/spoil for hibernation and a variety of unvegetated, unshaded ephemeral pools for breeding!

Inevitably natterjacks are killed by work operations, but the overall result is good recruitment to the population.

Bill Shaw, the then Project Officer, tasked himself with trying to find old photos of when the sites were in operation and compare these to what they look like now. He also hoped to talk to former employees about how the sites were operated and their memories of natterjacks.

Tracking down old photos proved tricky and a number of lines of enquiry led to dead ends but perseverance was the key!

Results were achieved at two sites – Millom Ironworks, in the south of the county, and sites around the old iron and steel works in Workington.

Millom Ironworks

This photo was taken in 1941 from the west.

This photo was taken in 1968 from the east

These two aerial photographs of Millom Ironworks were taken in 1941 (the works opened in 1865) and 1968, the year the works closed.It shows the many blast furnaces and chimneys of the works, which was situated on the edge of the Duddon Estuary. Cooling ponds covering about a hectare are inland of the works and can be seen in both photos. Part of the large slag bank remains to this day and serves as a reminder of Millom’s industrial past. Natterjacks too are part of the heritage/legacy.They bred very successfully in the extensive warm waters of the cooling ponds, where tadpole development must have been super fast!

The Ironworks site today.

This photo, taken in 2012, looks across the site of the old cooling ponds to where the last blast furnace stood. Natterjacks still breed here. All the iron works buildings have been removed and the site is now a Local Nature Reserve, for its natterjacks, limestone grassland and skylarks.

Workington steel works

Natterjacks were first noted breeding at sites in Workington in the early 1970’s, but these were presumed to be remnants of a long standing population(s). In total seven sites were identified, all in the Mossbay area, in the vicinity of the steel works.

Over the next twenty years or so the sites were surveyed mainly by two keen local volunteers Stephen Chambers and Les Robertson. They documented a slow decline with a number of the breeding sites being destroyed, and one being turned into a fishing pond!

The last spawn string was seen in 1987. In 1996 and 1997 two final surveys were made but nothing was seen so the population was declared extinct.

In October 2012 Bill Shaw made a visit to all the old sites with Stephen Chambers to take photos of what they look like today. Two of the sites still exist as pools, the others have disappeared!! The photos below show what we found. A rather depressing tale!!

Site 1)

This photo was taken in 1998.

This photo, taken in October 2012 shows that the pool is still there but the steelworks has completely gone!! No natterjacks breed here now but it is used by frogs and common toads.

Site 2)

This large pool was stocked with coarse fish and promoted as an angling pond when it was turned into a country park in the 1980’s.A number of coarse fish species are voracious predators of spawn and tadpoles so when there are fish about you don’t normally get any successful amphibian breeding.The natterjacks have long gone!

Site 3)

Just below the arm of the yellow digger in the photo below there used to be a natterjack breeding pool!! Sadly no more.

Site 4)

This site used to be in the yard of a cement works, with piles of sand lying around and some shallow pools. The works have now gone but as can be seen the site is still open/undamaged and the pools are still there. We spoke to some people that worked nearby but no-one had heard any natterjacks calling. Maybe, just maybe, it might be worth a visit on a warm spring night!

Site 5)

This site, across a railway line from Site 4, used to be a natterjack breeding site but B & Q got permission in 1988 to build a new store so it was destroyed. There are still some puddles but these dry up very quickly after any rain

In the planning process for the new store, Stephen worked with The Nature Conservancy Council and the local Council to find a new site nearby where a new pool could be created for the natterjacks. This was done but sadly no natterjacks were recorded breeding there.

Today the pool has grown over and scrub has grown up around it so making it unsuitable for natterjacks to breed in.

In early December 2012 an ex-steel worker reported natterjacks calling in 2011 from another pool in the vicinity of Mossbay.

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HLF LogoWe would like to thank The Heritage Lottery Fund for their support of this work