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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Claire Stares

Country diary: We’re out on toad patrol with bucket and torch

Volunteers help a toad cross the road
‘An estimated 20 tonnes of toads are killed on the UK’s roads every year, equating to 250,000 or more individuals.’ Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

Of all our native amphibians, common toads display the most fidelity to their natal pond. Their annual spawning migration can occur any time between January and April, but it’s usually triggered by a spell of mild, damp weather. Emerging from their hibernacula, they begin the journey back to their birthplace, which may be up to 5km and often involves crossing busy roads.

Unfortunately, their lumbering gait and lack of road sense make them extremely vulnerable to traffic. An estimated 20 tonnes of toads are killed on the UK’s roads every year, equating to 250,000 or more individuals. With the species declining by 68% in the last 30 years, the monitoring of historic migratory crossings is vital to ensure that as many toads as possible survive to breed.

With the early evening temperature a desirable 8C and steady drizzle falling, we don our hi-vis jackets and head out on toad patrol. A fellow volunteer tells me that in the 1970s, the road adjacent to the Brickkiln Ponds was reputedly a seething mass of amorous amphibians. Tonight’s movement is a much quieter affair, but as I scan the gully, my torch beam picks out a squat, nubbly-skinned male attempting to cross.

I scoop him up and place him gently in my bucket. We collect another singleton and two couples in amplexus, the smaller males piggybacking on the egg-laden females. As we carry them over the road and down the track to the water’s edge, the mounted males begin to chirp, kicking out their back legs in an attempt to usurp or fend off their rivals.

Retracing our steps, the sight of a freshly squashed female, tongue lolling from her mouth, is a sobering reminder that despite our best efforts, we can’t save them all. I peel the body off the tarmac so that it won’t be counted twice. While most motorists are considerate, slowing down and giving way to us, one speeds up, veering towards the verge and flipping their headlights to full beam, momentarily blinding me. In this instant, I experience a sense of the disorientation and fear the toad must have felt, dazzled by an oncoming vehicle looming out of the darkness.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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