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Toads in a hole? - The threatened wildlife in our gardens

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 May 2019

A toad in pond at dawn

A toad in pond at dawn

Paul Hobson

A lifelong love of amphibians is behind Paul Hobson's wish that our garden wildlife should continue to thrive

Common toad in early springCommon toad in early spring

As a young boy I was fascinated by all forms of wildlife but if I had to choose favourites outside of the avian world they would be our native amphibians and reptiles.

One of my best-loved creatures back then, searching through the dusty memories of my youth, was a large toad which lived in our garden. I think the thing that enthralled me most was her enigmatic grin as she sat out on the lawn or one of the paths on wet nights when it was easy to watch her with a torch. (I was always sure it was a female because of her huge size.)

Toads are often confused with frogs, though most of us are aware of the main differences – warty skin and a tendency to crawl rather than hop. Another factor that separates them is that the toad's skin is mildly poisonous, acting as a form of deterrent to predators.

Toads also differ in one other respect, their choice of breeding pond. Both species need to return to water in spring, with toads making the often perilous journey a few weeks later than frogs. The difference is that toads are creatures of habit and require much larger, deeper ponds. Frogs are far less choosy.

Toad swimming in woodland pond, photographed underwater from belowToad swimming in woodland pond, photographed underwater from below

On their way back to the pond, which is generally in April in Derbyshire, the lusty males will be on the look out for a female and, once spotted, will attempt to climb on her and be piggybacked to the pond. An unenviable task for the female.

Once back in the pond the male will have to try to repel the often aggressive advances of other desperate males. He will do this by attempting to give them a good thwack with his powerful hind legs, all the while grasping firmly onto his chosen consort. I am not sure if she ever chooses him or if she can dislodge a male she doesn't fancy!

The most successful males are the ones with slightly thicker, stronger front legs and larger nuptial pads on their feet with which they grasp the female. In some cases the situation can become incredibly sad and desperate as a number of males all attempt to grasp the same female. The result can be a seething ball of twitching male toads all slowly drowning the larger female.

The journey back to some ponds can be very dangerous because the toads' road sense is a bit poor, to say the least. No green cross code is used, and to be frank even if they followed this religiously they take so long to crawl across the rough and inhospitable desert of tarmac that the chance that a safe departure from one road verge means a safe arrival at the other is often slim. Toads cross roads mainly on warm, damp nights and those that fortune chooses to arrive there later at night fare better.

Toad at sunrise, Bufo bufo, SheffieldToad at sunrise, Bufo bufo, Sheffield

Luckily for some toads, we have taken matters on board and humans now provide a helping bucket at what we call toad crossings. Unfortunately not all roads are patrolled so if you fancy helping your local toads and don't know if there are any toad patrols near you please visit the fantastic froglife website and follow
the links on 'How to become a toad patroller'.

Once safely back in the pond, the female toads lay their long strings of spawn (in contrast to the clumps laid by frogs) and fairly quickly leave. A lot of people are familiar with the chorus of croaks that frogs often make when they are besotted with breeding, but fewer people will be aware that toads also call when at a pond. Not a deep croak but a more high-pitched qwark-qwark.

Once the toads leave the pond they return to woodland, moorland, gardens or deep grassy fields where they hunt for insects on damp nights. Mature females can be quite large and can even take a small mammal like a young bank vole.

Toads, whilst having the luxury of a poisonous skin, are killed and eaten by other animals. I have seen a grass snake tackle a toad, and herons and even crows learn to peck off the skin so avoiding the distasteful bit. Sometimes I have found many toads next to a breeding pond which have been killed and left uneaten on the bank. Each with a large stab wound on the back of the head or body. I have never seen who the culprit was but I strongly suspect crows. I don't mind one creature eating another – it's what drives the natural world – but senseless killing just seems wrong.

Traffic is a great threat to the common toadTraffic is a great threat to the common toad

Toads generally don't fare well in our literature or vocabulary. 'Toady' implies an obsequious or sycophantic individual. It's true that Toad in The Wind in the Willows has many positive virtues and has become a firm favourite, but Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars has little to recommend him, a huge (literally) crime lord who seems to exaggerate the uglier side of a toad's visage. Toads might not be the most attractive animals but I would challenge anyone to get down close and gaze into their drop-dead gorgeous, gold flecked eyes. Eyes that are simply to die for!

Toads are not faring well in the UK and Derbyshire at the moment but there is so much we can and, I suspect, will do in the future. The easiest way in which to help toads is to become a toad patroller. However, as we learn more and more about the devastating practices we are using in intensive farming which are destroying some of our agricultural soils and the myriad creatures that live on and in them – and these include toads – I'm sure things will change – because they will have to! u

To find out more about the conservation of amphibians and reptiles and saving the habitats they depend on, visit www.froglife.org. For details of how to become a toad patroller see www.froglife.org/what-we-do/toads-on-roads

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