Helping amphibians to survive


Some of you will remember Mrs Rosemary Tilbrook who lived at Red Squirrels on The Street, Ashwellthorpe, from 1961 until her death in 1999.

From August 1986 until December 1998, she wrote a daily column for one week each month in the Eastern Daily Press newspaper, for their “In the Countryside” series. Only three times during that twelve-year period, did she write about the Ashwellthorpe  toads, but those articles throw light on toad numbers and habits back as far as 1918.

On 24 March 1994 she wrote that, for the last thirty-three years, she had bucketed toads across the road in front of her cottage to their spawning pit in the farm on the opposite side of the road – with Mr Cyril Muskett, the farmer at the time, calling it ‘the Toad Pilgrimage’ and remarking that, “to his certain knowledge, this migration had been constant ever since at least 1918 when his family bought the farm and, doubtless, long before that”.

In March 1994, Mrs Tilbrook was on toad patrols for about seven nights between 7.00 p.m. and 1.00 a.m. and bucketed some 257 toads across the road.  She was worried then about the decline in numbers and mentioned that the “highest number of toads I have ever bucketed across the road occurred 10 years ago” [1984] “when the number reached just over 800, and that was from one side of the road only”. Even with this six-hour watch at the height of the migration, many other toads were killed on the road.

Two years later, on 26 March 1996, she reported that the toads were on the third day of their migration to the breeding pond from Ashwellthorpe Wood and that she gathered some 50 toads and a few frogs from the grounds of her house before they reached the road. This was so that she could take them to another pit at the back of the meadow behind her cottage abutting the wood , which had just been dug out, widened and cleared of refuse and invading vegetation. She hoped it would become the new, safe, spawning pit. She ends her report on that day: “knowing that toads return to the pit in which they were born, will they settle to spawn in a restored one well away from the road? Somehow, I have my doubts”.

Rosemary Tilbrook’s last article in the Eastern Daily Press about the Ashwellthorpe toad colony’s breeding migration was a month later, when she wrote on 24 April 1996 that the ‘pilgrimage’ which had started on the 24 March, three weeks’ later than usual, had stopped after three days because of cold weather and frosts. She had wondered whether the toads “on the way would suffer fatally from frosts or would they go back into hibernation?”  Nothing happened until Monday 8 April when the army of toads suddenly started to move again and on that day and on Tuesday 9th, she carried 847 toads to safety! The total number of toads bucketed across the road that year exceeded 1,000.

I have lived in Ashwellthorpe since 1970 and I can well remember the hundreds of toads seen crossing The Street each year – you had to step carefully when walking on the pavement after dark for fear of standing on a toad and certainly drive very carefully and stop if necessary along The Street.  The young children living in Greenwood Close at that time also used to rescue the toads when they became stuck in the depth of road gutter drains – they lifted up the drain covers, one child lay on the road with another holding on to legs, and delved deep into the drain to lift out the toads. But, even with so many being carried to safety there were many corpses to be seen each morning.

After Mrs Tilbrook’s death in February 1999, no-one took on the mantle of ‘toad rescue’; in fact, I don’t believe many people knew of her part in such a rescue operation and I don’t think there are any records of her year-by-year toad rescue totals. So, from 1999 until 2010 Ashwellthorpe’s toad rescue was in abeyance and, during those eleven years, it seemed that the numbers in our toad colony dropped significantly. It was no longer a common sight to see hundreds on the move or dozens squashed on the road and I think most people forgot about them. Much to our shame.

Following a public meeting in December 2008 in The White Horse public house organised by John Heaser of Toadwatch, who had been running successful toad rescue patrols in Great and Little Melton, enough volunteers came forward to undertake Ashwellthorpe’s renewed toad patrols from February/March 2009. These Patrols cover The Street from Ashwellthorpe Wood car park entrance (near Greenwood Close) to the field gate into Street Meadow, along The Street. A rota is organised each year for two-person patrols to spot and carry toads (and frogs or newts) across the road, from dusk until about 8.45 p.m. every day when the weather is right – mild, at least 5o C,  and damp -  once the migration begins. This period of about 2 – 3 hours covers the main traffic movements along The Street of the homeward commute and the evening outings. Sometimes we have been alerted by Toadwatch that toads are on the move as early as late-February but, more often than not, it is the middle of March before much action is seen.

The past few years’ weather has not been perfect for migration with it either being too dry or too cold day after day. It is not practical for the present volunteers to patrol along The Street between 9.00 p.m. and 1.00 a.m. when Rosemary Tilbrook was able to work from her own house between those times and help so many toads. The numbers carried to safety in Ashwellthorpe since 2009 are very low compared to those mentioned by Mrs Tilbrook in 1984, 1994 and 1996 and very low compared with some other parts of Norfolk. But the numbers have been rising again:  in 2010 – 11; 2011 – 51; 2012 – 43 (but many extra frogs!); 2013 – 41; 2014 – 53. And there have not been many road losses counted over those five years either. We check each year the “new spawning pit” Rosemary Tilbrook mentioned back in 1996 but there is a singular lack of activity there – in 2014, perhaps the resident grass snake had something to do with that!

 It would be nice to suppose that, as Mrs Tilbrook ferried 1000 to safety in 1996 and the current patrols rescued 53 in 2014, there might be over 900 toads that made their own way over to their breeding pond, unassisted and safely in 2014! But, unfortunately, this is unlikely. THE NUMBERS HAVE DROPPED

But the Ashwellthorpe Toad rescuers have been and are doing their best to help the toads recover their numbers and hope to do so again in 2015. Last year there were twenty volunteers, including several young children patrolling with their parents and, naturally, many frogs and the occasional newt were also carried across the road. I will shortly be contacting last year’s volunteers to see if they are willing and able again this year to patrol, even though our numbers are so low……….perhaps this year, thanks to our efforts of the past five years, there will be many more toads.