Hundreds of Natterjack toadlets that were spawned and bred in captivity were released into the wild at Castlegregory in Co Kerry today with the help of the local community.

Natterjacks are an endangered species in Ireland. Their natural range is restricted to the coastal zones around Castlemaine harbour and Castlegregory.

This is the first time that fully captive-bred Natterjack toadlets have been successfully bred and released in Ireland.

It is the result of a joint initiative between the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Fota Wildlife Park in Cork.

Toads are one of only three amphibian species in Ireland yet not very many Irish people alive today will have seen one in the wild.

That is because they are endangered species due to significant historical land-use change which led to habitat destruction, including the drainage of the wetlands they needed to survive in the early 1900s.

Climate change and alterations in weather and rain patterns have also been playing havoc with toad survival.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service conducted a nationwide survey of Ireland’s amphibians about a decade ago.

It concluded that we had about 162 million frogs in Ireland, but only 10,000 toads.

This means there are 16,200 frogs for every one toad in Ireland. Is it any surprise, then, that so few people have actually seen a toad in the wild?

Ireland’s third amphibian species is the smooth newt which is "widespread" according to the NPWS.

The NPWS and Fota Wildlife Park - along with the local community in Castlegregory - have been making a great effort to help Ireland’s Natterjack toads survive.

Between them, they have successfully nurtured, protected and released 6,000 toadlets into the wild to date - although it’s hard to know how many of these survive.

Some of the Natterjack toadlets released today

The conservation groups usually collect little strings of toad spawn from the Kerry ponds and pools and incubate it in Fota Wildlife Park.

The toadlets are incubated and protected until they are able to hop around and fend for themselves. At that stage they are then transported back to the Maharees near Castlegregory and released into the wild.

As many as 90% of the spawn survive and grow into young toads when reared this way, compared to just a 10% survival rate in the wild.

This year, however, rainfall levels in the months up to May were much lower than normal. As a result, the ponds and pools used by the toads for spawning were too dry and they failed to spawn until very late in the season.

Fortunately, the conservationists at Fota managed to develop toad spawn from their own captive adult Natterjacks and this ensured they had some toadlets to release this year.

It is the first time the young toads released into the wild via this initiative have been totally captive-bred.

The Minister for Heritage, Malcolm Noonan - who visited Fota last year to see the conservation project - was in Castlegregory today to see the toadlets being returned to the wild.

He said: "This project is a fantastic example of scientists, conservationists and communities coming together to protect this rare amphibian and the habitat it depends on.

"I am also delighted that local farmers can now benefit from a new results-based scheme specifically for Natterjack toads.

"This will pay farmers to manage their land in a way that helps ensure the conservation of this endangered species, and I hope that everyone will get involved."

Transporting the toadlets from Fota to Kerry

Toads are stockier than frogs, with stubbier snouts, much drier skin and far shorter legs.

They are not slimy and do not hop like frogs. Instead, they run and crawl and can travel quite a distance, eating any kind of insects or smaller creatures that will fit into their mouths.

They, in turn, are prey to foxes, larger birds and other animals with mouths that can accommodate a toad.

Natterjacks also have very different mating habits to frogs (and are not as promiscuous when they "get together").

Male Natterjack toads have a very special and loud mating call, that can be heard from a few kilometres away. It has a type of musical quality when it rings out in the spring and early summer evenings.

And usually when one male starts off, others will get chime in too. So it can all get very loud.

Frogs spend most of their time in water, emerging at times to eat and explore. whereas toads spend most of their time on dry land, going back to the water on occasion to breed and spawn.