Saving toads on the roads
PUBLISHED: 09:37 11 April 2019
Throughout the early spring, scores of people patrol our country roads to help toads and other amphibians across the road, so that the creatures can live and breed in peace.
One of the main things we know about fictional toads - one particular toad, as it happens - is that they can become beguiled by the idea of the open road.
Mr Toad, the anti-hero of Kenneth Graham’s classic children’s tale The Wind in the Willows, is immediately smitten by the motor car when pitched into the road by one of them.
“Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured ‘Poop-poop!’”
Unfortunately for the rest of the country’s toadlife, most of their encounters with motor vehicles do not end as happily - even accounting for Mr Toad’s later spell in prison.
Crossing the road during the mating season can be is a matter of life or death to an amorous amphibian, which is why a small but dedicated army of humans (under the tagline Toads on Roads) is on hand to help them cross the road. I was invited to join a night patrol, at Stowlangtoft.
But first I went to meet Marian Donegan to be properly kitted out. I had acquired my own high-vis vest and as soon as I put it on, I realised that this was not going to be a flattering look for me. Marian further supplied me with a head/arm light, a torch, a bucket and a pair of non-latex gloves, in a becoming bright blue.
How did Marian become involved with the toad patrols?
“I started about three years ago although it’s been going a lot longer than that.”
Marian says she is very much into conservation and, when she saw the patrols were asking for new members, she volunteered. The road we will be patrolling this evening has meadowland on one side of the road, where the toads live, and ponds on the other, where they breed. The idea of facilitating procreation is rather appealing... even if I do look like a cross between a surgeon, a road mender and a stalker.
But though this may seem like a bit of fun, there is a very serious side to policing toads. Across the country, numbers of these pond-loving amphibians are decreasing, - even with the best efforts of the volunteer patrol force.
The common toad, is very particular about where it breeds and follows the same route back to its ancestral pond each year. If something is constructed in its path, it carries on regardless. As well patrols, Toads on the Roads also displays warning signs to alert motorists and lowers kerbs where needed.
Is the common toad - the one we are hoping to save from road traffic accidents - on the decline? Here are some of the figures.
The numbers from Badwell Ash are as follows:
...........toads helped.....toads killed
2016 195 23
2017 69 10
2018 200 26
The teams make copious sand reliable notes, recording numbers and weather conditions but the fact is that toadlife is on the wane. Monitoring by patrols over the last 30 years has shown a significant decline in populations of common toads. A report in 2016 showed that, on average, toads in the UK had declined by 68% - more than two-thirds - in the last 30 years with the biggest decrease in numbers in the south-east of England.
How do you know if you have frog or toad spawn in your pond? The frogs lay eggs in clumps while the toads lay long strings of eggs. It is estimated that just five out of every 2,000 eggs will survive as they are eaten by fish, birds, water shrews and many insects. Moreover, tadpoles will eat each other...
On this evening I went to Stowlangtoft to join Sylvie, Lorna and Marian as they patrol a back road favoured by toads.
“They don’t come out till dusk,” says Marian. “They like mud and they squat. It’s not until they hop that you know they are there... but they don’t hop very quickly,” she adds with a sigh.
“You can hear the toads in the grass, they tweet,” she says. I thought they croaked? But no, “it’s almost as if they are singing”.
As darkness fell, the four of us set off along the lane. I listened for toad calls and played torchlight over the verges to see if there was any movement. As the last rays of sunset sunk, so did the temperature and it soon became clear that nothing amphibian was happening out there. Not a toad, not a frog, not a newt.*
“It’s too cold,” said Sylvie.
I was disappointed. I had looked forward to placing my first toad in my bucket and carrying it swiftly to safety. On the plus side, no toads died that night although, a couple of older, flattened carcasses showed what a dangerous game sex can be when it involves crossing a highway.
On a warmer night, you might see dozens of the little creatures creeping over the tarmac. But not tonight.
In the meantime, I and the dozens of volunteers who take on these nightly patrols would just ask that motorists remember there could be a toad in the road and to take care.
• You can out more about our pondlife and reptiles at froglife.org.uk
* I have since heard that on Sunday night (April 7) Lorna and Sylvie rescued 19 toads at Badwell Ash... most of them returners (ie on their way back home from the ponds).