(author Death on Earth published by Bloomsbury and former Froglifer)
The spring toad migration is one of my favourite times of the year. I generally like any animal you can pick up, intensely eyeball and probe, and put down without it being in the least bit bothered and, for me, this totally encapsulates what toads are like. With its dry, almost scaly skin, orange eyes and a slow waddling crawl, it has almost been designed via natural selection to fit perfectly into the coat pocket of an 11-year-old boy or girl. Toads are such resilient little things. Tough-skinned, rugged stanced. No wonder they are rooted so deeply within the fossil record.
But toads are not so resilient that they can withstand getting hit by a modern human invention like, say, a car. If they get hit by a car they are not resilient at all. They simply die. Or they twitch their limbs in assumed agony for a little while and then die. Many of Britain’s roads are littered with their corpses each spring. The TV quiz show QI (and I have no idea where they got this fact) says that 20 tonnes of toads are killed on Britain’s roads each year, which is nothing if not incredible. But it’s no surprise to me. There are a lot of European common toads out there and you could say that evolutionarily speaking the toads bet on the wrong horse: they went for poisonous skin and stamina over the speed and wariness that frogs, generally, possess. In a world of human vehicles they chose … well …20 tonnes? That says it all.
Rescuing toads from roads is one of those activities that you’ll normally find a friend of a friend does. Normally that friend of a friend is: a) eccentric; b) kind and loving, perhaps overly so; or c) having marital difficulties and needs an excuse to leave the house. Most toad patrollers are any combination of these three things. In temperate climates, on the whole, amphibian migrations take place during runs of consecutive warm, wet nights (particularly after or during rain), often in early spring. To see them yourself at this time of year, look at a Google map and pick out local reservoirs, lakes and big ponds. After dark, travel slowly and safely on roads near these freshwater spots and you will probably see them trundling along, particularly on more humid nights.
Toads are more picky about their breeding ponds than frogs. Whereas in northern Europe frogs prefer shallower ponds, toads appear to prefer bigger, deeper bodies of water. But such breeding spots are rarer than small ponds and this is a further source of bad news to toads: they must travel further to get where they need to go than frogs, navigating more and more obstacles, like roads and housing estates, in the process. Some populations of toads have been doing fi ne, it seems. Others – where roads are busier, for instance – are less fi ne. In Britain, with more and more roads, our toad populations are facing death by a thousand cuts; they’re declining so slightly in so many places for so many reasons that barely anyone has noticed or is able to do much about it.
Each year during toad season there are five ponds that I normally visit, keeping tabs on how local populations are doing. Why do I do this? I’m not sure. It’s partly out of duty, but also because I like to see and pick up toads and this is the only time of year I can really do it. It ’ s exhilarating in some ways, driving down small roads, looking for tell-tale shapes like dead leaves that move slowly in front of my beams.
I pull up to my first site. It’s a small B-road near Great Brington on the western edge of Northampton. The toads here like to breed in the moat-like pond that surrounds Princess Diana’s burial site, which is quite a nice thought (I think it’s what she would have wanted). In many ways the site is typical: on one side of the road is a hill upon which a woodland sits in the distance, and down there, on the other side of the road and over a large brick wall, is where the large pond lies. Toads wake up from their winter slumber in the woodland and, en masse, make a move down to the water, crossing fields, hedgerows, a small ditch, and now this road. I think they must find little holes in the wall to squeeze through, but I have never actually seen them do this.
There are plenty of toads about tonight. Fifteen are already dead on the road. A large female has had her head squashed by a car and her unfertilised spawn has fi red out of her rear end. This is particularly sad because female toads take more than three years to mature – as a result, to a meta-population, the life of each female really does count because it is capable of restocking tadpole numbers with such vigour. But not her. And not here. Most years I don’t think much about all the death – they are casualties, and I’m here to try and help the living toads – but this year things feel slightly different. This year, the dead ones are as interesting to me as the live ones. I shine my torch on each one, assessing their size, their sex and their missed potential. My interest in death is changing me.
Toad crossings are always much sparser than you might imagine them to be. The toads move so slowly, they look more like an army of the undead crossing a graveyard than a sweaty tangled sexed-up throng like they appear on TV documentaries. But it is the number of them that keep coming that makes it all so impressive. For hours and hours, night after night, they keep coming from that woodland, heading over the road to the pond. By helping so many cross, by counting up the living and the dead, one gets a real feel for the statistical likelihood of survival, and, almost, the whole energetics of toad populations and what they bring to an ecosystem. You get a really good feeling that each life and each death matters for something. And also one gets a feeling for what death brings, in particular.