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.

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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.

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