Waking from their torpor

Toads pic for Steve Blacksmith's Ear To The Ground column, March 2011
Toads pic for Steve Blacksmith's Ear To The Ground column, March 2011

Every year, around the middle of March, toads start waking up from their winter torpor.

Feeling a little warmth in the soil, sensing the lengthening days, and prompted by their mating instincts, they set off to their ancestral breeding ponds. They can be found on the move until about the end of April on this urgent mission.

Unfortunately, when the place they spent the winter and the breeding ponds are on different sides of a road, many get run over.

Extensive toad squashing has prompted people the length and breadth of Britain to go out and start toad patrols, picking up the slow coaches and putting them on the pond side of the road. They seem to move mostly just after dark. A bit of drizzle encourages them to move en masse.

There is an organisation, Froglife, which helps conserve amphibians. They have paid for road signs for local authorities to install, and provided high visibility vests for volunteers. Most people will say frogs and toads are “good for the garden”. They eat slugs, snails and other invertebrates which damage our plants.

Toads are more observable than frogs. The latter have a tendency to fling themselves around with enormous six foot leaps. Toads, if they jump at all, do a kind of a tired little hop. Mostly they walk with their legs moving alternately, for all the world, to my imagination, like tortoises without shells.

Whilst their skin is warty, repulsively so to some people, it is dry when they are on land, and can be varying shades of brown, greenish-brown or reddish-brown. A frog’s skin is constantly moist, even when sun bathing, as they often do.

The really beautiful feature of a toad is its eyes which are like polished copper, though in my picture, taken at night by flash, the black pupil is dilated.

Frogs and toads are detectable by sound for those tuned in. A colony of common frogs gives a deep, rumbling sound, like distant, big-engined motorbikes. A colony of toads gives off a higher pitched squeaking chorus, like a group of terriers yapping in the distance.

There are toad crossing points patrolled by volunteers at Hebden Bridge, Todmorden and Sowerby Bridge. The one I help at was a big colony, with over a thousand toads picked up in the 1990s, but that was before a big development took place nearby, and before a big pond was destroyed for housing.

It might easily be said that people should come before toads, but what would life be with no wildlife around us?

l ONE of the values of animals is to teach children compassion.

If they are shown wild creatures and taught about them in a positive light, and if they can possibly be allowed to care for a baby animal, they are far more likely to develop a caring attitude to all things.

One fascinating thing that children can do is to raise frogs and toads from spawn. Frogspawn is easy to spot in a pond. The clumps of spawn float to the top, after the frogs have laid them in a communal raft.

Toadspawn is harder to find. It is laid in deeper water, in the form of long strings of jelly, studded with the black embryos, which twine across twigs or anything in the water.

In an aquarium, tadpoles can be alarmingly cannibalistic. This may be an adaption to poor conditions, to ensure that at least some new individuals are added to the population.

Froglife advises that the young tadpoles should be fed a little cooked spinach or lettuce (to imitate the green algae they eat in ponds) and larger tadpoles, which need protein, on small pieces of meat or fish, but not too much in case it fouls the tank water. In a garden pond they will not need feeding.

I got a lucid story from a nursery nurse about froglets the nursery had watched develop. They released them near the spawning pond. One froglet was put on a stone, on which a moth happened to settle at the same moment. The froglet snapped up the moth, which was about the same size as itself!

l ARE you keeping an eye out for our area’s migrating toads? Let us know how you get on by emailing todnews@todmordennews.co.uk or hbtimes@hebdenbridgetimes.co.uk