Why did the toad cross the road?

Why did the toad cross the road? To get to the other side of course! Sadly, crossing roads is not that easy if you are a small toad faced with speeding traffic and many are killed at this time of year. Happily, a growing number of people are doing their bit to help – and you can, too, as SAMANTHA TAYLOR, from the charity Froglife, explains

Imagine the world from a toad’s perspective. You are a small browny-green amphibian with golden eyes, drawn to dark corners and watery places. Similar to frogs, you crawl rather than hop, and have dry, bumpy skin.

Every winter your body slows down, and you find somewhere safe and dark to hide away from the cold. As the light of spring returns you start to stir and ancient instincts kick in. You can’t move very fast, but on warm evenings glistening with spring rain, you navigate your way back to your pond.

Three years ago in that very same pond, you grew from a tiny black egg to a thumbnail-sized toadlet, leaving in summer to eat and grow and explore. Now it’s your turn to create the next generation of toads, and there are thousands of you moving at night, almost magnetically attracted back to the water, shuffling through the undergrowth and hiding under hedges.

Toads have been making this pilgrimage year after year after year, but in the last few generations something has changed. There’s a clear strip through the undergrowth. The path of a different traveller bisects the toad trail.

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On a wet night, the slick tarmac of the road can help you move, hopping your way through the open space towards the pond on the other side. The kerb forms a barrier though, and hundreds of toads hop along it, looking for a break to get to the water.

Imagine the damage a single car could do driving through this crowd of toads as they edge slowly across the road.

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The driver may not even spot the small migrating creatures; in the sweep of the headlights they look like leaves strewn across the road. Every year it is estimated that 20 tonnes of common toads die on roads travelling back to their ponds.

Animals are killed on roads all the time, where human and animal habitats brush up on unhappy terms, but the great sadness for toads is that moving in such large numbers, a car often harms more than one animal at a time. On a busy road, the death toll can reach the hundreds in just one night.

This all might sound rather melodramatic, but toads matter for all sorts of reasons. They are a precious piece of the biodiversity puzzle, providing food for other animals and feeding on invertebrates.

They are only small – an adult toad could sit in the palm of your hand – and the UK’s species might not seem as exciting or as media savvy as komodo dragons or poison dart frogs. Yet all the animals we find here have their own value. Each of our wild animals is important, not only for how they connect to each other and their habitats, they are also part of our heritage.

These are the creatures we meet as children exploring gardens, woods or ponds, or find in unexpected urban corners. They feature in our stories and myths. We should be proud of our wildlife but, deliberately and accidentally, we have destroyed many species, making the ones we have left even more significant.

Happily for toads, there are some people who are passionately committed to them and will go to great lengths to help them survive. The charity Froglife was set up in 1989 to help protect our native species of amphibians and reptiles.

We have been co-ordinating the Toads on Roads project since then, with hard-working volunteers going out all over the country to help toads to safety on spring evenings. Ponds that have a Toad Patrol keeping an eye on these declining animals stand a much better chance of having a sustainable population of the animals, and more than 70,000 toads were helped to safety in 2010 alone.

The number of people in a patrol varies – it could be one individual with a bucket keeping an eye on a local country lane and collecting toads to carry them to safety. Or it could be 30 people co-ordinating efforts to save thousands of toads over a few busy nights in spring. So, keep a look out for the toad signs, and for people at the side of the road in hi-vis vests with torches and buckets. They’re helping preserve a little bit of our wildlife heritage.

You can be involved in helping these secretive characters in the UK’s wildlife story. You can find out more about Toads on Roads, donate to the Tuppence a Toad campaign to support the Toad Patrollers, or become a Froglife Friend for �18 a year via the Froglife website – www.froglife.org or by phoning our Peterborough-based office on 01733 558844.

Froglife and the Toad Patrollers are also looking for volunteers to help move toads, dig ponds, hold a Mr Toad themed tea party or do a sponsored run. However you would like to help protect our toads, please get in touch.

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