'We must try and save them' - road warriors help frogs defy traffic
PUBLISHED: 08:00 09 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:35 09 March 2019
Every spring hundreds of thousands of frogs, toads and newts attempt to return to their age old breeding locations to reproduce.
Often, they must run the gauntlet of man-made roads built across their invisible migration trails.
National charity Froglife estimates 20 tonnes of toads are killed on the UK’s roads every year - despite overseeing a scheme called Toads on Roads.
The initiative sees volunteers man known crossing points each spring, picking up amphibians before they venture onto dangerous roads and carrying them to their destination in safety. The organisation currently has 743 toad patrols registered in the UK.
I meet George Millins just after dusk, patrolling a kerbside in the village of Great Waldingfield near Sudbury.
He’s been coming here virtually every night during February and March for the past dozen years, torch and bucket in hand, as he seeks to find frogs and the odd smooth newt, and help them across Folly Road to get to the large pond in front of the primary school. The frogs move after dark to avoid predators and when they reach the pond the females will release the frog spawn in the water.
The fertilisation of the eggs happens outside the female’s body: the female releases her eggs and the male releases his sperm at the same time. To make sure the sperm intermingles with the eggs, the male and female get into a mating posture called amplexus. This involves the male climbing onto the female’s back and clasping his forelegs around her middle. Frogs can stay in amplexus for hours or even days as the female releases between 2,000 to 4,000 eggs - sometimes the male gets a piggyback from the female across the road, says George.
In the last decade or so, around 200 extra houses have been built in Great Waldingfield, cars have got bigger and the traffic busier, while frog numbers have dwindled.
When George started doing this, he says he could collect around 100 frogs on a good night - a good night for frogs being both wet and mild. He tells me a recent evening when these conditions were prevailing resulted in a haul of 20 frogs. But this obvious downturn has only made him more determined to help nature.
“I could not be here during this time and have a clear conscience,” he says. “The decline in amphibian numbers has been so steep, it’s terrible. We must work harder to save every one.”
George has a number of volunteers with him this evening - retiree Chris is a keen amateur naturalist who is involved in the local nature group Branchlines; mother and daughter Jess and Jenny Mason moved to Folly Road recently and were intrigued to find out more when they saw the toad crossing sign opposite their house; Sean is a mature student studying ecology part-time and is helping George - keen to glean as much knowledge as he can from the fit and resolute 80-year-old.
Indeed, time goes faster than you would imagine walking back and forth on a dimly-lit and damp rural street in the cold and wind. The talk is of nature, the environment, the habits of frogs and other species - it’s thought-provoking and educational. But it’s not always so social and George sometimes soldiers on alone.
Tonight has been quite fruitful despite the ravages of Storm Freya, which has probably kept numbers down. Around ten frogs have been picked up and unfortunately one, not reached in time, found flat on the road. George rings me the following night to tell me another frog and a newt were flattened and says that more volunteers are needed so that the entire stretch of road can be surveyed at all times.
After a while shining torches on the road and keeping our eyes peeled, the mind starts to play tricks: for a split-second a tumbling leaf resembles a frog: catch a glimpse of a windblown catkin on the tarmac out of the corner the eye and it looks like a young newt. George says the other night he thought he heard a frog croaking before realising it was his stomach rumbling.
The reaction of passers-by varies as we wander about in our high-vis gilets. Some passing cars slow down, the odd one seems to speed up. One driver stops believing we are police in the midst of ‘an incident’.
A local, ambling back from the pub, obviously knows George and stops to give him a hug and tell him what great work he is doing but, he says, he could never pick up a frog himself, as he can’t stand the way they feel. A jogger asks us what we are doing and smirks when we say we are helping frogs across the road.
I put it to George that many people might find his nightly vigil bizarre behaviour.
He agrees and says: “A lot of people will probably think I’m strange but as I walk up and down I see lots of people watching televisions. I’d rather be out here helping nature than sat in front of the idiot box.”
If you want a snapshot of conservation in modern Britain: picture a street full of inhabitants watching TV while outside in the dark an 80-year old man tries to catch frogs while a storm rages. It’s a powerful image.
George is always looking for volunteers to help with the frogs crossing at this time of year. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07534 263629.