A look at the work of the Monyash Toad patrol
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 February 2020
Paul Hobson joins the wildlife champions of Monyash who help ensure the continuation of a local species.
Just over 350 million years ago much of South Derbyshire lay under a warm tropical sea. Life flourished and for millions of years countless numbers of sea creatures lived and died, their dead bodies accumulating on the shallow sea bed. As time progressed this layer of sediment, calcium-rich from shells and coral, accumulated into thick layers. As the layers grew, this squeezed and changed the sediment until it eventually became limestone. Over the following millennia this limestone bed rose above the level of the sea and became the fabulous limestone dales of the Peak District that we love so much today.
Limestone is a fascinating rock that is quite soluble, and because rain is slightly acidic - this was before we created the scourge of acid rain - it ate into the rock and formed numerous underground features such as Poole's Cavern in Buxton.
From a natural history point of view each rock type underlying the soils all over Britain has a major influence on the animals and plants that live there. In many ways the Peak demonstrates this brilliantly when we compare the sombre heather moors of the northern Dark Peak's gritstone with the limestone dales of the White Peak.
Limestone has many features that help determine which wild creatures and plants can live on its thin alkaline soils. One of its most important features is that it drains incredibly well. This means that ponds, lakes and boggy ground are in short supply, so animals like frogs and toads might find everything they need for a productive life, apart from the very thing they need to breed in - ponds!
However, there are small silver linings dotted around the White Peak. One of these is the many dew ponds that farmers have built over the last few hundred years, and another is a quirk of the last glacial period to hit Derbyshire.
At the end of the last glacial period, about 11,500 years ago, meltwater ran south from huge glaciers and left deposits dotted across much of England. Many of these missed Derbyshire, apart from one incredibly important (from a toad's perspective anyway!) narrow band of clay. This was deposited across what is now Monyash. Clay does not drain like the limestone beneath it, so surface water formed into ponds in places. Over many years, when humans started to have an influence on the landscape, a lot of these were dug a little deeper to form what are locally termed meres. As Britain and Derbyshire warmed up any invading toads from the south must have found these meres an absolute heaven, and they took to them with a relish.
Roll on a few thousand years and unfortunately today there is only one of these glacial meres left - Fere Mere in the centre of Monyash. The toads are still there but since Monyash developed - it was once far more prosperous than it is today with lead mining being important - Fere Mere has been surrounded by roads. At one time these were probably not too much of a problem. True, a horse's hoof may have crushed the odd toad, but on the whole the toads fared well. Today, though, the story is not a good one. The huge increase in traffic over the last few decades has had a very serious impact on the toads that have been migrating safely to Fere Mere for thousands of years.
Luckily two local residents took direct action. Simon and Judy Corble started their first toad patrol in 2014 because they were so shocked at the sheer volume of flattened toads every spring. In 2015 they rescued over 3,000 toads, making Fere Mere one of Britain's most important, historical toad ponds. In 2019 I joined them to learn more about what inspired them, and to meet a number of the volunteers who spend a few hours in the early evenings picking up toads.
The volunteers are organised by Simon and Judy into small groups to patrol the key 400m of roads around the mere in the early evening. This is the peak time for migrating toads and, unfortunately, also the peak time for traffic in the village as folk arrive home from work.
Armed with high vis vests and a bucket they pick up every toad they can find and, once they get a decent bucketful, carry them to the mere to be released. The volunteers range in age from older adults down to youngsters of primary school age. Everyone is keen to help and is brimming with enthusiasm. In many ways toad patrolling is very rewarding work, as you can quickly see just how successful your efforts are. However, there is a visible sad side. Even with the best will and quick hands Simon estimates that 10 per cent of the toads are squashed every evening a toad party patrols. This highlights just how vital the Monyash Toaders' work is. The percentage would rise drastically without their help and the entire future of Fere Mere as one of the best toad ponds, not only in Derbyshire but in Britain, would be jeopardised.
It's not only toads that are rescued, however. I was helping a couple of toads from the road next to the mere when Oliver, a seven-year-old on his third year of toading, brought up his bucket of trophies. Among the writhing mass of toads were a couple of great-crested newts, a declining and very important species in our county. The odd frog is also given a helping hand, as are many of the common newts that also use the pond.
Simon and his band of volunteers are real heroes of modern Derbyshire wildlife conservation. Without their unstinting help - and they can't stop because the number of cars is not going to decline - the toads of Monyash would be nothing but a flat memory of times gone by.
If you would like to help with Monyash's Toad patrol this year then please email Simon on firstname.lastname@example.org to check for dates and details. The dates each year are very weather dependent but generally March is the key month with the early evening, 6-8.30pm being the main time for patrolling.