Kings of the jungle: amphibians are at the very centre of our finely balanced ecosystem. Image: Christian Ziegler/ Minden Pictures
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An unexpectedly vital part of the ecology

The disappearance of frogs and toads contributes to the appalling modern phenomenon that conservationists are now encountering everywhere: “trophic cascade”.

What is it with poets, frogs and toads? “Stop looking like a purse,” says the poet Norman MacCaig, carrying a toad outside. “How could a purse/squeeze under the rickety door and sit,/full of satisfaction, in a man’s house?” The pair of toads Jamie McKendrick encounters find their own exit: “they make for the hallway with sagging hops/like small encrusted beanbags on the move”, he says in “Right of Way”.

Frogs and toads live on all continents except Antarctica, in 24 different families and more than 4,000 species. In children’s literature they are gently comical, but the amphi in amphibian reminds us that they belong to two worlds.

They disappear in a second, leaping from one medium into another, and global folklore invests them with darker powers than Kenneth Grahame. A life cycle of spawn, tails and legs means they incarnate metamorphosis: you kiss them into princes, get turned into one by witches. In the Rig Veda, Great Frog supports the universe. They are familiars, boiled up by the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, and the “great kings” of slime terrify the boy in Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist”.

Frogs and toads are an unobtrusive but vital part of the ecology, and their loss contributes to the appalling modern phenomenon that conservationists are now encountering everywhere: “trophic cascade”.

As children, we used to put bricks up on end in a long wavy line, then tip the first and watch the whole circuit ripple to the ground. Imagine a similar sequence in a South American forest, with frogs at its centre. The frogs live in delicate balance with nine other species: lizards, mango trees, mango-eating ants, monkeys, wild pigs, owls, wasps, mosquitoes and a microbial parasite. They breed in riverbank puddles created by the rootling wild pigs. Mosquitoes breed in those puddles, too. The parasite they carry infects monkeys that eat the mango fruit, spreading its seed in fertilising scat, but few monkeys die, because the frogs’ tadpoles eat most mosquito larvae.

The lizards eat the ants; they also eat wasps that nest in holes in trees. Owls compete for these nesting holes and keep the wasps in check.

Now men kill off the pigs. No more puddles – so the frogs die out, but the mosquitoes breed in rainwater instead. Uneaten, they multiply, along with their parasites, which kill off the monkeys. With no monkey-scat, the mango trees die, along with the mango-eating ants. This halves the lizards’ food and they fade away. No lizards means more wasps, which crowd the weakening owls out of nesting sites. The owls go. Only three viable species are left: wasps, mosquitoes and their parasite, which will now turn on the cause of all this - man.

Trophic cascade could happen here. Frogs are disappearing globally into extinction. Two diseases are ravaging amphibians worldwide. Chytrid fungus has extinguished hundreds of species, and thousands of British frogs are dying from ranavirus.

Conservationists are working against time to save them. Scientists from the Zoological Society of London have swabbed amphibians in ponds across the UK and are collaborating with other organisations on the Garden Wildlife Health website, which asks for the public’s help in monitoring British wildlife. ZSL has also rescued, through a unique conservation programme you can see in action at Regent’s Park, the Majorcan midwife toad – until 1979 believed extinct – whose males carry new-laid spawn on their back until the tadpoles hatch.

Glyn Maxwell has written a poem to these toads, not now entering human houses but being saved – just – by human beings from exiting the world. “We are back who were never gone,” they sing. “We were here and you never knew./We thought you’d died out too.”

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition