Sunday 13 May 2007

Terror of the terrapins.

From The Guardian (London): 4 May 2007
'Horror in a half-shell' by Patrick Barkham

They're aggressive, impart a painful nip, and chomp their way through other pondlife. Hundreds of dumped terrapins are terrorising Hampstead Heath's pools - and now rangers are racing against time to round them up. Bobbing about in their flat-bottomed boat, Ian Shepherd and Bob Gillam have been given the slip. A moment before, the conservation rangers lured a large terrapin into a floating trap on the murky waters of Hampstead Heath's bird-sanctuary pond. Dipping and swishing a large salmon net around the square trap, they can't find the elusive reptile anywhere. Then Shepherd sees why: with its formidable front claws, the red-eared terrapin has ripped off a plastic cable tie and torn away the chicken wire at the corner of the trap before paddling off at high speed. "It's the Steve McQueen of terrapins," sighs Rob Renwick, one of the heath's conservation team leaders. Hampstead has a problem. These American reptiles began life as cute little critters when they were kept as pets during the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-inspired craze of the early 90s. But when they outgrew their owners, scores were dumped into Hampstead's waters. Life in the heath's lush ponds agreed with them and they grew some more. Now up to 150 cruise up and down almost all the 25 main ponds on the 792-acre heath, including the men's and women's bathing pools. Many have swelled to the size of dinner plates, chomping their way through our native species: fish, newts, toads, frogspawn, dragonfly larvae and, possibly, the occasional great crested grebe, coot, moorhen or mallard. There are a growing number of tales of aggressive, illegally released terrapins - "terrorpins" as the tabloids call them - bringing death and destruction to ponds and waterways across the country. Native to the warm swamps of Louisiana and other southern US states, they have been spotted in ponds in north-east England, canals and the Thames. Two years ago, schoolchildren were reduced to tears at a pond in Mill Hill, London, when they apparently saw ducklings being consumed by a group of ravenous terrapins. A mallard was later found with its legs bitten off. Last year a ranger at Hampstead saw a duckling being dragged under water. Terrapin experts at the British Chelonia Group, a tortoise, terrapin and turtle charity, are sceptical of such attacks. Red-eared terrapins, they say, are not known to take birds, although snapping turtles - another rogue species sometimes released into the wild - will kill baby birds. The terrapins have not attacked any swimmers at Hampstead, but they are known for their nip. The males also boast long front claws, which they use in mating. "They have been in the bathing ponds for a while and no one has been bitten but there's a chance it could happen," says Julie Brownbridge, one of the heath's ecologists. "And some carry salmonella, which is another sound reason to get them out." While one park ranger is rather fond of the reptiles and hums the Syd Barrett song Terrapin as he works, Brownbridge fears they are wreaking havoc with the heath's fragile flora and fauna. Last year, they were seen scuttling between ponds and, apparently, scaling a steep hill to reach a pool on the other side of the heath. One was found killed, its shell smashed by an angry angler (terrapins are very unpopular with fishermen). The return of the heroes in a half shell, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, in the latest Mutant Turtle film, TMNT, has got terrapin aficionados worrying that more people will buy them as pets before chucking them out when they discover just how hungry, messy and disease-ridden they can be. Don Freeman, chairman of the British Chelonia Group, says the "mad craze" when the 1990 film was released caused thousands to be released into the wild. While it is now illegal to import them from America, they can still be bred in captivity and sold as pets. "Dear little things about the size of a 50p piece grow to be as big as the bottom of a bucket," says Freeman. "When they are that size they are a bit of a problem unless you are a devotee - they make a terrible smell, they bite, and they are not terribly friendly animals. If they are put into a small environment like a village pond they will soon decimate all the wildlife in it." As these pond-life terrorists pop out of the water to bask in the spring sunshine, Hampstead's conservationists are taking action. Renwick has little affection for them - "horrible little things," he says - but culling operations tend to attract unwelcome attention from animal rights activists. When the park's rangers looked at the culling option they found it cost the same (£25 per animal) to have them humanely put down by a vet as it would to catch them and send them on a permanent holiday to a terrapin sanctuary in Tuscany. The sanctuary scheme is run by the British Chelonia Group, which has dispatched 700 terrapins in the past three years to a secure reserve blessed with pools warmed by volcanic rock and Italian sunshine. Freeman says that while the terrapins are surviving in British ponds, many are suffering from a climate and diet that does not really suit them. The City of London Authority, which manages the heath, has also accepted an offer from a sanctuary in Norfolk. Hampstead's conservationists hope to catch most of the terrapins by the end of the summer. If not, they fear there is a chance they could breed. One really hot summer, and terrapin numbers could spiral out of control. Four home-made traps are now floating on Hampstead's ponds made of plastic piping fitted together in a square, offering a tempting basking spot for the creatures. Extra plastic mesh on the outside helps the terrapins clamber up, but once they haul themselves out of the water they slip into the centre of the trap, where tough chicken wire should, in theory, prevent them swimming off. Fish is dropped in the central area as an added incentive for the terrapins to turn themselves in. Five have been caught so far, including the troublesome specimen that chose to escape the moment the Guardian arrived. The remaining four are being kept in a child's paddling pool fenced in with chipboard in one of the staff yards. The trap is being repaired, and at the secure paddling pool Renwick is making sure there are no more escapees. The terrapins devour cat biscuits and lounge across some rocks added to the pool to make them comfortable. Has Renwick got names for them? "Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, of course," he grimaces.

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