IT’S IN HIS NATURE
Former police officer and life-long naturalist Garth M Coupland wrote from his home in Australia recalling the moment a discovery in his childhood garden sparked his love of nature.
Former police officer writes from Australia
In the spring of 1953 doctors Michael and Kirsteen Coupland and I, their eight-week-old son, arrived in Reedham from Sussex. Michael was to start in practice as the local GP and we lived in The Old Mill House, a large Victorian home with a garden to match. Lawns, an orchard, flowerbeds, wonderful old sheds and greenhouses, mellow brick walls upon which grew pear trees rooted in the sandy soil and a view across the flat marshland all the way to Great Yarmouth. The house sat on the site of a windmill which burned down earlier in the century. One might presume that the placing of the mill on top of the sandy bluff that was the former coast of the ancient Yare estuary before the draining of the marshes, was to catch the maximum wind. The fact that the village was clustered upon this sandy bluff, with the River Yare running below, is an essential part of this story.
Michael had a deep love of natural history. His mother drew and exquisitely painted the flowers and butterflies of southern England and his interest was encouraged and nurtured by his preparatory school headmaster, Meston Batchelor, an outstanding naturalist. Michael had been sent off to board at the age of four.
This and a boyhood and youth spent wandering the Sussex Downs was to become a legacy passed on to his grandchildren. So it is not surprising that Michael encouraged his little boy to take an interest in all the wonders of the natural world.
I should return to that moment when I turned over the slab. This memory is incredibly vivid and desperately important to me.
My father took me along a path that ran through an herbaceous border. The path was made of concrete slabs fashioned to look like old, flat stones. They were rough and moss encrusted and I distinctly remember liking their natural appearance. I suspect that he already knew what was under the slab but let me lift it. There, hunched up in a hole of its own making in the loose soil beneath was an animal. It was dry and warty and much the same colour as its surroundings but with a thin, yellow stripe down the centre of its back. I picked it up and it felt deliciously alive, soft and cold and its eyes were golden and shone from the fascinating, camouflaged head. I was informed that I had found a Natterjack. A Natterjack!
What a perfect name for such a captivating creature! I remember feeling unbelievably excited by this find. There was something about this animal that I liked more than anything I had ever seen. I now recognise this as my aesthetic appreciation of and attraction to the anuran form. This being the reason or not, I was hooked, and from that moment until today I have loved frogs and toads and their habitats, and have travelled in many countries seeking their cold, wonderful company.
I left Reedham aged eight to live in Acle, some six miles away, and life was never as good again. In Reedham, Natterjacks (Epidalea calamita), grass snakes and viviparous lizards filled my time and my imagination in what seems now to have been endless summer days. What I didn’t know was that I was enjoying the last of the Natterjacks of Reedham. My experience, married to what my father told me, leads me to believe that the colony became extinct in 1962 due to the ploughing of the breeding marshes for arable farming.
Natterjacks are a burrowing species of loose and sandy soils and so are often coastal and dune dwelling. To my knowledge the Reedham colony clung very closely to the sandy bluff, all that remained of the old coast, and did not venture beyond the village unless it was to breed. My father told me that the little creatures would swim the River Yare to breed in the dykes on the marshes south of the river.
I never experienced this but Mr Brown, the Reedham postmaster, gave my father a black and white photograph that he had taken on those marshes of a male Natterjack calling at night. This photo, in a cheap, mint green, plastic frame, always had pride of place in my father’s consulting room wherever he worked. Even today some of his patients remember it. I remember it as part of what defined my father and finding it recently in a box that I had shipped out to join me in Australia, where I now live, was a deeply emotional moment.
The image and glass is held in place with medical, sticking
plasters, no doubt put on by my father’s healing hands! He died in 2011.
When I found common toads at my friend’s place I brought a large female home and kept her with some Natterjacks in one of our greenhouses. On failing to find her one day I was informed that some people from the BBC had visited while I was at school and taken a Natterjack to make a film about witchcraft. They had actually taken my common toad by mistake. My father telephoned the well known naturalist presenter, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, only to learn that the mistake had been discovered but they’d filmed it anyway sitting in the lychgate of the attractive country church at Woodbastwick.
I was paid one guinea for the supply of the animal and it paid for the taxidermy of a weasel that my father found dead on the road. The taxidermy was done by the famous Fred Ashton of Pettitts of Reedham.
A year after I left Reedham so did the Natterjacks. When about 12 years old I wrote to Dick BagnallOakley to enquire if he knew of any other places where I might find Natterjacks, and he wrote back telling me of the colony on the Norfolk coast.
The Natterjack is a seriously declining and now endangered species in Britain. It therefore receives total protection from conservation law . This makes it an offence to even handle a Natterjack.
Time and tide have brought my children and me to Queensland’s shores. Instead of Natterjacks we have the equally wonderfully named Pobblebonks and some 240 species of frog! My daughter has a degree in animal science, works with rescued koalas and paints pictures of mammals and birds.
My son is an astounding naturalist and skilled photographer of natural history. Still in love with the anuran form since that first Natterjack, I paint pictures of my finds from the amazing variety and number of Australian frog species.
In 2015 I spent 10 weeks travelling the American west in search of herpetological wonders, and a European trip in 2016 saw me renewing old aquaintances, including Natterjacks on the Norfolk coast.
When I find frogs and toads across the globe each new species brings the same thrill to my spirit as that first Natterjack. The legacy of that single animal, my dear father, Meston Batchelor and my grandmother lives on in my children and me as we find, observe and admire the natural world and recreate those moments of joy with our art.
Garth Coupland photographing frogs in the Appalachian Mountains.
Garth with his father, Michael, in 1956.
This watercolour by Garth Coupland is of a pair of giant barred frogs, Mixophyes iteratus, Australia’s largest frog.
The photograph of a Natterjack toad, taken by Mr Brown, the Reedham postmaster, is treasured by Garth as a reminder of his father.
A Natterjack toad, Eipdalea calamita, photographed by Garth Coupland.
Garth studying lungfish in the Brisbane River, Queensland, Australia.