A Night Out With The Toads
It is eight o’clock on a wet March evening; brightly coloured clothing, flashing lights and a miscellany of plastic hand-luggage; in the background an odd musical chorus of croaks, chirps, squeaks and hoots. No, not Saturday night on The Prince of Wales Rd, Norwich but the annual ToadWatch migration in the village of Little Melton.
Every spring between February and April, toads come out from their hibernation sites and start to make the perilous journey back to their ancestral ponds for breeding and to lay their eggs. They may travel up to a mile often following routes that were in use long before the road, dicing with death to cross roads and tackle other obstacles. Many perish en route; the biggest danger is the car. It has been estimated that 20 tonnes of toad are killed on British roads every year.
ToadWatch (registered with FrogLife, the national amphibian and reptile conservation charity) was started in 2004 and assists amphibians in the Bowthorpe and Little Melton area. A crossing in Great Melton was added to the list this year. During the migration season, which takes place on warm, wet evenings between February and April, volunteers wearing very fetching Hi-Viz jackets and equipped with powerful torches, escort toads, frogs and newts across the roads in buckets to the safety of their pond. Little Melton resident and ToadWatch co-ordinator John Heaser, is credited with bringing the verb “to toad” into common usage, as in “Are you toading tonight?” Adrenaline rises as an amphibian in peril is spotted dicing with death before the wheels of an on-coming vehicle. Quick as a flash, a volunteer highlights it with their toad lantern. The car slows; perhaps the driver recognises the plight; perhaps he has seen the “Toads Crossing” sign; or perhaps he thinks it’s a speed trap. Whatever, the creature is swiftly rounded up and carried to a watery haven. Most drivers take heed, some are bemused and others actively help. One enthusiastic gentleman wound his window down and said ”I’ve got you some!” There were two toads sitting on his passenger seat.
Toad patrols nationally save thousands of animals every year and without the help local toad populations could become extinct. If conditions are right, mass migrations can occur with hundreds, perhaps a thousand, amphibians moving over just a couple of days. The males go first and ponds can teem with vocal toads all trying to attract a mate.
This year the migration started properly on Tuesday 24th Feb and the patrol finished on Sun 12th April. Across the three sites (Bowthorpe, Little Melton and Great Melton), assistance was given to 1341 toads, 221 frogs, 33 great crested newts and 41 common newts. Conditions were not ideal. It was too dry, too cold and too windy most nights so there was no “big rush” as happened in 2008 when 300 toads crossed in Little Melton on one night (15th March) alone. This year’s toad peaks were 194 in Little Melton on 13th March, 107 in Great Melton on 16th March and 125 in Bowthorpe on 1st April. Numbers on other nights varied considerably. I spent one cold evening patrolling in Great Melton without picking up a single toad (they were far too sensible to be out in such temperatures). However, I was able to enjoy the singing of the males who had already made it to the pond, accompanied by the occasional barking fox and the hoots from a tawny owl. There was another eerie hooting that I wasn’t able to identify but I found out some days later that it was a pet eagle owl in one of the neighbouring houses. Around about 10 pm my perseverance was finally rewarded when I saved a common newt from becoming just another sun-dried crispy statistic on the tarmac. Actually, newts do seem to have a bit more road sense than either toads or frogs. They tend to cross later when traffic has died down and have been seen lining up to make their journey in mass (safety in numbers?). Unfortunately, we’ve yet to see one looking both ways though.
Although all amphibians are offered assistance, the patrols are primarily for the benefit of the toads. Toads are more particular than frogs about where they breed and spend the winter further away from their breeding sites. Frogs are much less specific and may chose to spawn in the first pond they come across.
The common toad (Bufo bufo) can live up to 40 years. They are between 8 and 15 cm in length with the males being smaller than the females. They have a broad, squat body with webbed hind feet, a rounded snout and quite captivating eyes with a golden iris. Unlike frogs, toads don’t hop or leap but walk. The skin colour varies according to time of year, area, sex and age and can be dark brown, grey, olive, terra cotta or sandy. They are covered in warts with those behind the eyes being particularly large. The eye warts secrete a poisonous protective substance called bufagin which is made up of a hallucinogen, bufotenine, and several glycosides similar to the heart stimulant digitalin from Foxgloves.
Like frog spawn, toad spawn consists of eggs in a transparent, protective and insulatating jelly which also feeds the tadpoles. However, unlike frogs spawn which is a mass of clear round balls, toad spawn is laid in strings which can be 3 to 6 ft long.
Unfortunately, toads have been viewed with suspicion and generally maligned in the past probably because of their long association with witchcraft, as familiars and ingredients in potions. Kenneth Grahame did his best to dispel this notion when he immortalized the toad in “The Wind in the Willows”.
“He is indeed the best of animals……. So simple, so good-natured, and so affectionate………. He has got some great qualities, has Toady”This year FrogLife has mapped hundreds of “toad crossings” across the
This article by Dr Anne Edwards first appeared in the Wymondham Wildlife Group newsletter