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Photo © Jon Cranfield

Building on the South East regional adder meeting hosted by Kent Amphibian and Reptile Group (KRAG) in 2011, ARG UK, together with our partner organisation, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) co-hosted a very special meeting in Somerset in October, to discuss how best to conserve the adder, arguably the most vulnerable of our native reptiles.

This unique forum gathered together over 140 adder practitioners including representatives from: the NGO sector, statutory bodies, land managers, ecological consultants, academic institutions, and enthusiastic volunteers from the amphibian and reptile groups; to network and debate adder conservation through a series of presentations, discussions, workshops and interactive sessions.

Introduced by Tony Gent, CEO of ARC, the conference commenced with a summary of the strategic challenges facing adder conservation delivered by ARC’s Jim Foster. This was followed by an overview of the national status of adders, based on a research questionnaire presented by John Baker of ARG UK. This highlighted a worrying decline in adder numbers since previous national and regional surveys conducted in the 1980s and 90s, which was mainly attributed to disturbance and unsympathetic habitat management, which was reinforced by a subsequent presentation from Jan Clemons (WART) who charted the extinction of the adder in Warwickshire.

The conference was divided into five sessions, each covering a different aspect of adder conservation. In the first session we heard about the insights gained from survey and research including the importance of long term surveillance and how we can turn such data into an assessment of conservation status by Rick Hodges and Steve Langham from the Kent and Surrey ARGS. We also heard about some other, more novel, practical techniques and Nigel Hand of Herefordshire ARG explained how it is possible to use radio-telemetry to track adder movements over time. The use of this technology was later expanded by Darryn Nash from DICE, who demonstrated how it could be used to monitor the success of a development translocation.

Moving on, we heard about the challenges associated with managing landscapes sympathetically for adders, from a range of land managers including: Iain Porter of the Quantocks AONB, Alex Crucikshank (BBOWT) and Rob Parry (WTSSW) from the Wildlife Trusts, Jim Foster representing the 80+ ARC reserves, Chris Slack who has been managing Hounslow Heath in London, and Paul Wilkinson and Chris Monk, two ARG volunteer leaders representing the Staffordshire and Derbyshire groups.

The headline messages were that whilst many land managers are well disposed towards reptiles generally, and specifically adders, they find it difficult to balance the conflicting requirements of managing sites for multiple species, as well as human activities such as rambling, dog walking and mountain biking, with reptile conservation. There are additional challenges posed by land ownership, commoners’ grazing rights, the requirements imposed by SSSI status, funding and resources and the continuation of long held ‘traditional’ practices. However, on a positive note a number of the land managers have come up with some ingenious solutions, including ‘dirty swaling’ (i.e. burning smaller areas of heather and leaving an incomplete burn to preserve key vegetative structures); using volunteer survey data to target specific areas for adder conservation; promoting less invasive techniques such as manual cut and collect, rather than machine flailing in sensitive locations; changing grazing practices to lower their impact; and lighting camp fires more thoughtfully. An interesting idea from Hounslow Heath was of encouraging the local community to feel pride in their local adders.

Later in the afternoon, Mark Barber and Pete Hill from ARC ran a workshop which sought to find out more about the issues surrounding public interactions with adders, which included intensive photography, as well as concerns raised by adder bites. Many ideas and suggestions were raised which will form the basis of a review of how we frame our messaging concerning adders in the future, and how we can encourage the wider public to interact with them in a less conflicted way.

During Sunday we heard more about the regulatory framework opening with a presentation by Tony Gent on the national legal framework, and how it affects the adder, and a more detailed discussion of site protection, regulation and policy issues in Wales, from Liz Howe of Natural Resources Wales and in England from Paul Edgar representing Natural England.

Professor Richard Griffiths (DICE, University of Kent) then introduced the next section which focused on mitigating development impacts, with an overview of the IUCN guidelines as they apply to adders. We then heard more about the process of translocation and mitigation from specialist ecological consultants who have been closely involved in development mitigations including: Jon Cranfield from Herpetologic Ltd, Ian Bradley representing Caledonian Conservation and Gareth Matthes from GPM Ecology. One interesting concept put forward by Caledonian Conservation was where works were likely to be transient, in this case laying a pipeline for a wind farm, it was better to avoid significant landscape features that were likely to be important for reptiles, and temporarily capture and move animals ahead of the works, rather than laying 100s of metres of exclusion fence that would cause more disruption than the works themselves. Finally we heard a good news story from Will Atkins (LEHART), demonstrating the success of the adder translocation to Hounslow Heath in Greater London in 2000.

In the final session, Steve Langham and Richard Griffiths gathered feedback from the floor to create a ‘mind map’ of all the factors that were felt to be important for adder conservation. These will be iterated by an expert panel using the Delphi process, and Richard will present the results at the next Herpetofauna Workers Meeting, which will be held in February 2017 in Nottingham.

Finally we held a raffle supported by some of Tell Hick’s lovely prints, and a T shirt and calendars from Indigo Expeditions, which raised over £200 which will be used for practical adder conservation projects through our 100% fund.

Many thanks to all of those who presented or attended and helped to ensure that this meeting was so successful, and most of all to the local Somerset Reptile and Amphibian Group (RAGS), who provided the vital ‘on the ground’ logistic support.