Froglife have declared 2017 the Year of the Toad. A recent study estimated that toads have declined by 68% in the U.K over the past thirty years. Possible reasons include changed farming practices, loss of ponds, urban development, and increased traffic on roads they use, or have to cross, in order to reach ancestral ponds. Climate change is also likely to be a factor because mild winters have been shown to be detrimental for hibernating toads.
Once again teams of volunteers in our local area have scooped hundreds of toads up from roads and given them a free, if not always dignified, ride in a bucket to their favoured pond or dam. As this year’s toad rescuing season draws to a close our thoughts have turned to how it all began for us.
My ‘other half’ happens to be a naturalist with a penchant for the common toad, bufo bufo. Well, more than a penchant actually. Some would say the common toad was her totem animal, but that would not be her style. Its obvious, though, from the way she responds to these impressive little amphibians every year, that she has a special connection with them.
According to my archive she made the first record of toads in a threatened pond on the other side of town seventeen years ago, and I was accompanying her on exploratory visits to monitor other sites. Three years later we watched the spring cavortings of toads (and frogs) in a pond up the hill and talked to the land owner, but were vague about where they were spending the rest of the year. This is not the place to recount the full story of what followed, of course, but two events stand out for me.
One day in March 2005 I was walking home up a lane through a wood on the hillside. I’d been walking along there for about thirty years previously without seeing a single toad, but on that day there seemed to be pairs everywhere -little males riding on the backs of larger females- in broad daylight. Unusually, it was early afternoon. One particular pair caught my eye. The female was almost white, a relatively rare albino, and her passenger very dark brown. I’ve never seen such a striking combination since.
Their presence -within half an hour of the Spring Equinox- alerted us to one of the routes taken by our local population. We soon realised that many toads were overwintering in cracks and holes in the stone wall that borders the lane, and have been going out on March evenings to rescue them ever since.
A second event that stands out in my memory occured in August 2007 when my partner was struggling with a very stressful situation at work. At the nadir of that particular crisis, just when a bit of magic was most needed, a strikingly beautiful, calm, and regal, female toad -a veritable matriarch of the toad community (pictured above)- turned up at our back door. She stayed for a while, spending the day beneath a neighbour’s planter.
I think of heart-felt encounters like these as ‘showings’. Some would regard that Equinox event as lucky co-incidence. Maybe it was. But the Spring Equinox had long been important for me as a key time in the life of Kingfishers, and co-incidentally or not, we happened to hear about a kingfisher turning up on the same day at the pond my partner had surveyed some eight years before. The second event, the arrival of her amphibian helper, seems to me to illustrate the potential for reciprocity in relations between humans and other species. Again, given my own experiences with kingfishers, this is not a claim I make lightly.
We always enjoy the toading season, not least the friendly rivalry and camaraderie between rescue sites. As we’re not quite as able to keep going up and down hills these days we were delighted to welcome some enthusiastic new helpers this year. Some people have expressed doubt about whether rescuing toads is worthwhile. Quite apart from the steep decline in their overall population, we know of a couple of migration routes further down the valley that have died out for various reasons. In any case, once you’ve got to know toads, and seen animals injured or killed on roads you’re likely to want to carry on. There is always more to learn, and being close to the toads’ springtime rite is brilliant -every time.
To find local toad rescue groups in the U.K go to Toads on Roads, or look on Facebook (if you’re that way inclined -we aren’t :)).
B.T. 6th April 2017.