Common Toad

Julie speaks about her voluntary work protecting toads and frogs – often overlooked victims of modern day development.

Common No More

“I’m writing this before the feelings of anger and sadness fade. I often get like this at this time of year, on damp, mild nights. It’s caused by Toad Patrolling; something that sounds a bit jokey, a bit “Dad’s Army’ish”, the sort of thing those eccentric Brits get up to after, or before drinking warm beer. I wish it was like that. I’ve been Toad Patrolling for nearly 30 years, over half a lifetime of early Spring evenings spent trying to save migrating amphibians from the results of human technology.

I first patrolled a crossing at Kingsweston, a semi-rural enclave between the city of Bristol, a housing estate and the industrial sprawl of Severnside. It was the late 1980’s, I was an active volunteer with the local Wildlife Trust and it was easy enough to recruit a crew of colleagues, friends, even my hairdresser and the owner of the local riding stables. The frogs and toads migrated from surrounding woodland to spawn in a large pond, originally dug in the mid 18th century to provide water for horses at the stables belonging to Kingsweston Manor House. To reach the pond they had to cross a narrow lane, not a main road but a route known as a shortcut to locals and leading past the former stables and coach house which were then used as a Police College. Our job was to collect the animals in buckets to prevent them being killed by traffic on the lane before they could reach their breeding pond. When we had a full bucket of amphibians we gently tipped them into the water and congratulated ourselves on a job well done.

Every damp evening from mid February to early April a group of us, on a rota, would help toads to cross the road. The lane may have been quiet but it only takes one vehicle to crush a generation into oblivion. The logical solution for this lane ought to have been to close the road to through traffic at night during the breeding season, but the local Council refused on the grounds of the administrative cost, it was just too much hassle, even though the Police College agreed with us that this was a good idea. So we carried on filling our buckets, on the busiest nights over 100 animals were helped and the Kingsweston Toad Patrol became a feature of my life for the next 4 or 5 years.

The last Spring the woods looked different, instead of a tangle of underbrush there was a clear vista through the trees and some of them were missing too. That year no toads or frogs showed up to be carried across the lane and joyfully celebrate the arrival of another year in the cycle of so many years by croaking, cheeping (the sound a male toad makes to serenade his lady love), writhing and spawning in an ecstasy of new life. They had gone, no warning, no alarms to frantic attempts to save this population which had been there for centuries.

I walked the woods in daylight and then it became clear. The woodland had been tidied, trees felled, undergrowth removed using machinery and tracked vehicles. I contacted the Wildlife Trust, they contacted the Council who replied to us all. Yes, they had carried out forestry operations the previous winter and no, they hadn’t thought about the effect this might have on overwintering frogs and toads. Some male frogs will hibernate in the soft mud at the bottom of ponds but females and toads hibernate in dark damp places like log piles. They were all gone.

Not long after my life changed and I moved away to semi-rural Gloucestershire. Our at the bottom of our garden we half buried and filled with rain water, an old sink which my young son watched for animal activity with avid concentration. One day, aged 4, he brought me a drawing he had made. I was amazed; it looked like a male smooth newt in breeding colours of bright madder red stripes along his flanks. I had to check this out, and sure enough, there was the male newt, basking in the mini-pond.

The mini-pond didn’t only attract newts, soon a pair of frogs had spawned and the sink was full. An old tin bath (“normal” people use them for bathing muddy dogs) was drafted into action and spawn was reverently placed in it and cared for until the tadpoles transformed into tiny froglets and climbed out along wooden batons, expressly made for the purpose, to make their way in the world. Their route into the woods above the house was unimpeded by roads but they needed a bigger pond. Once, before people farmed this land marshy pools would have lined the spring-line at the foot of the hills and in later times farmers dug dew ponds to water their stock, modern water troughs do not provide such a forgiving habitat for wildlife. Frogs, toads and newts are now mostly dependant on garden ponds and the whims of the humans who own them. Fortunately for this population our neighbour dug a magnificent garden pond, didn’t use pesticides and was fascinated by the wildlife. We moved on feeling hopeful.

Our current house has a pond which we dug for wildlife. Apart from the areas cleared by rescued chickens, it is a tangle of jungle to give cover to animals. Other gardens also had ponds and a neighbour who has lived here since the 1970’s recalls the carnage of dead frogs and toads on the lane every Spring.

For the first few years the boys and I went out with buckets on Spring evenings and collected amphibians. Part of the challenge was working out which pond they were heading for. Gradually people tired of trimming hedges and installed solid fencing on concrete footings. They had no time for mowing lawns but gravel and decking were fashionable and then the ponds started to be filled in. There are 3 ponds left in the area, each with its isolated group of amphibians hanging on. The main toad crossing near me is now about a mile away. Frogs and toads move out of the hedges surrounding fields of improved pasture and head for a small ornamental lake. The owner of the house has assured me that it was only dug in the last decade, but in that time animals have chosen it in preference to 2 other smaller ponds nearby.

The only problem is the lane. It’s a quiet lane, not a main road but a route known as a shortcut to locals and leading to the lake. It only takes one vehicle to devastate a generation. Now the patrol is often 1 or 2 people, one year there were more, but there are not enough toads to occupy many more helpers. On the busiest nights of the migration we can help over 20 animals but the mortality rate is always about 40%; the unlucky ones who don’t make it across the lane before a car comes. Most drivers don’t see the animals. A male toad will often wait on a patch of open ground for the larger females to arrive. When a female creeps past the small male hitches a ride and clasps his front legs around her belly in a grip known as “amplexus”. There are always fewer females than males and amorous males have been known to so overwhelm a poor female that she has been drowned and crushed by their attempts to mate with her. Prising off a male toad while causing no hurt to either party is a delicate operation and usually results in the thwarted male embarking on a brief affair with the hand of the interfering human. Sadly what may appear to a male toad to be the ideal open space to wait for females is often the road. There they sit up on their haunches, bright-eyed and expectant. You catch the gold glint of their eyes in the torch light and sometimes you can’t reach them before the car does.

The female toads and frogs walk, hop and creep on towards the ponds. A pair of toads in amplexus will move slower than an unencumbered female. The saddest sights are the pairs of lost lovers, crushed before they could spawn. Each small body on the road is a tale of tragic heroism. Frogs and toads can walk up to 2km from their hibernation areas to their breeding ponds. When the road where they are killed is only 200m from the breeding pool the loss is so poignant. For millions of years, rana temporaria, the common or European frog and bufo bufo, the common or European toad have co-evolved with their natural predators and proved themselves to be adaptable generalists able to withstand previous mass extinction events and serious climate change. But we have pushed them literally into the corners, fragmented habitats, facing loss of breeding and overwintering areas and beset by diseases which humans have introduced. My now adult biologist son tells me that chytrid fungus was released into wild populations from bullfrogs used in laboratory experiments.

What population of any species can withstand this rate of attrition? Like many of our wild species frogs and toads are living shorter lives than even 30 years ago. I recall many of those animals we collected in the 1980’s being as large as the palm of my hand, with plenty of venerable female toads the size of a saucer. Now they are maybe half that size and age when I see them for their last migration. Tonight I only identified a female toad when the 4 cm long male clasped his slightly larger mate in a passionate embrace in the bottom of my bucket. I wished them well as I gently tipped them into the pool. There is plenty of spawn this year, but there are too many new enemies.”