Our “Common” toad (Bufo bufo) suffers from a pretty unflattering image in the UK – more so than its cousins, the Natterjack toad (Bufo calamita), which many people have not even heard of, or the “Common” frog (Rana temporia) I have no doubt.
Folklore suggested that handling toads would result in their “warts” (the larger of which are actually paratoid glands at the back of their heads) being transferred from amphibian to human. (Of course warts are caused by a virus, not bufotoxin, which is secreted from the toads’ glands if highly stressed).
In medieval times, the toad was considered to be a demon in disguise.
Kenneth Graeme’s “Wind in the Willows”* depicted “Toad of Toad Hall” as rather a conceited, thieving, impertinent chap (although good-natured and jovial I admit). He was self-destructive, dishonest, aimless and had inherited all his vast wealth. Even though he was not one of the baddies in Graeme’s 1908-penned tale (reserved for the weasels of course), he hardly was portrayed as a “good guy” – toads never are!
Toads have long-been associated with witchcraft, either as ingredient in alchemy or magick potions:
“Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' th' charmèd pot.
(Witches’ chant in Macbeth)
Toads were also considered to be “familiars” (animals believed to possess magic powers such as the ability to change their shape or form).
Many people regard toads as ugly, warty, poisonous, quite repulsive crawly creatures but we Brits do tend to favour the big-eyed fluffy, furry, impressive-looking or cute animals – and we probably have people like Walt Disney to thank for that.
Many have consigned our amphibians, reptiles, spiders and insects to the “weird animal enclosure” of their thoughts on British wildlife – animals that they instinctively react to with an “Urrrrrgh!” rather than an “Ahhhh” or an “Oooooh”… but these weird animals are invariably the most fascinating.
Our amphibians, especially toads, need a little PR help then I think….
I’ve always rather liked toads – but then again, I’ve always found damp, broadleaved woodlands and the animals that they conceal, quite literally enchanting.
Firstly I should point out something that you might not realise.
If you are ever asked for the differences between a toad and a frog, you might want to don a flak jacket (for the inevitable hail of pedantry bullets shortly to come your way!) and state: “There is no difference. Toads are frogs”. This is in fact biologically correct – toads are indeed frogs, or at least they both belong to the order Anura (meaning tail-less in Greek).
If your questioner would only grasp the finer points of biological classification, then we’d be fine eh?
“What are the differences between True Frogs and True Toads?” Now that’s a question a zoologist can answer!
There are many differences of course, some of which are detailed below.
Toads (our largest amphibians) are notoriously difficult to see, or find – unless you take a little time to find out a little about these unassuming little crawlers. Up until I carried out a little personal toad-specific research, I’d only seen one in my entire life – under an old ghillie hut next to a salmon pool (actual photo of the pool) on the river Lyon in the highlands of Scotland. (In fact it was this encounter more than any other in my life that made me determined to photograph wildlife, at least as a hobby).
Toads are not rare though, or particularly endangered, although they have declined in numbers in recent years for reasons we’ll come on to.
Both frogs and toads spend an awful lot of their life history away from water and ponds, very much so in the case of toads, which are far more tolerant of dry conditions than frogs.
Toads spend most of the year in gardens, hedges or woodland, hidden in leaf litter or under stones or logs (or flower pots!). They hibernate over the coldest winter months and emerge en masse in February or March to crawl (they prefer to crawl rather than hop like frogs) their way back to their traditional breeding ponds - in huge numbers. In fact the annual late winter / early spring toad migration is the largest animal migration (other than birds) in the UK.
The troubles for the toads comes about because their migration routes are ancient, adhered to each and every year and have been so way before roads with cars separated their woodland habitat from their old breeding ponds.
Very often these days, our toads have to negotiate a strip of tarmacadam and very unforgiving car tyres, before they can mate in their ponds – as such many many thousands of toads are killed by motorists each and every year as they slowly crawl across the roads – this being the prime reason for their decline over recent decades. Toads always carry out this migration at night, often starting around rush hour.
The organisation froglife has mapped many of our well-known “toad crossings – you can find your nearest crossing using froglife’s interactive map, here. (NB. The map’s balloons are very accurate – zoom in and you may well see the woodland which the toads leave in late winter AND the pond in which they are attempting to breed again – the piece of road separating the two is where you’ll see the toads in late winter – sometimes hundreds or even thousands of them).
At both sides of these road “toad crossings” you might see the a toad crossing sign on a roadside lamppost - a red bordered triangle with a painting of a black toad in the middle.
This is a clear sign that you are about to cross a well-known toad crossing. The amusing? fact about these signs is that when the AA carried out a poll to find out what motorists thought these road signs represented, many motorists thought that they were being told a french restaurant was nearby! A joke I assume, along the lines of putting “Jedi” next to religion of choice on a census form – many thousands do this each census time…
Sometimes a toad tunnel will be built under the offending road, to allow the toads to cross underneath the road – but these are very often ignored by the toads – partly because the tunnels get flooded or are too warm / too cool as opposed to the ambient temperatures.
But when exactly is the best time to find (help) toads cross their roads; you may well be asking (not being able to spend each February or March night by a road side!)
Well… this is the easy part….
When the temperature reaches about 8 or 9c at night, and there is a little moisture in the air, all adult toads are overcome by the desire to mate and so then (and only then) begins the migration back to their traditional ponds. So this can be predicted by you, with great accuracy – start weather forecasting in February each year, wait for a night time temperature of 9c and a little drizzle or rain - almost without doubt, you’ll have predicted the start of the toad mating migration.
Think 6pm as a start time and 6am as a finish time in February, but of course, you don’t have to be there for all twelve hours!
Very often these conditions do not occur until March, but not this year - as described on Monday, this week (Wednesday onwards) was perfect for our crawling friends – and so it came to be.
Anna and I went out for the last three nights – not to our usual site (a huge migration between Henley* and Marlow, where up to 10,000 toads leave a small woodland and cross a busy road to reach an old pond about ½ mile from the wood), but to a very local “toad crossing”, a mile away from our house, where there are still hundreds of toads crawling deliberately across the (much quieter, single track) road to reach a couple of old ponds.
* In fact the ancient toad crossing that Anna and I used to visit each year (before we moved miles away) is very close to “Toad Hall” near Henley on Thames and very close to Kenneth Graeme’s Cookham, where he wrote “Wind in The Willow”.
The weather this week has given the toads the ideal conditions to begin their deliberate pondward crawl and so we’ve managed to pick up a few dozen on our trips, safely putting them on the correct side of the road and therefore minimising the risk of them being squashed by Pirelli or Goodyear before they’ve had a chance to spawn.
To be fair the chances of them being squashed on this particular road is pretty minimal (unlike the much busier Marlow-Henley road), but we’ve seen a few casualties whilst picking up the luckier individuals – squashed by a security guard who drives up and down the road and cares not for the smaller, less obvious things in life it seems, nor for species other than our own (a quite dreadfully dull point of view which I will probably never begin to understand).
Toads for sure, are not the prettiest animals (in a classical sense), but their eyes have always appeared pretty to me. Gold leaf is how I’ve often described them – bright as a button and orange/yellow in colour with a horizontal pupil – really quite beautiful to look at. They are harmless (unless you resort to licking them like the ancient South Americans did, looking for a hallucinogenic fix), are very endearing (not at all jumpy like frogs), not slimy at all (much drier than frogs) and have a very sweet set of calls (more pleasing to my ears at least than the harsher, more vocal frogs).
They have the most marvellous camouflage and can vary their skin colour depending on the most common substrate in their particular, specific habitat. Even their “warty” skin (from a functional perspective), is very well done! Let’s face it, glands per se, are not meant to be beautiful – just functional.
Most predators do tend to avoid eating toads after they’ve popped a toad in their mouth for the first time, although hedgehogs and grass snakes don’t seem to mind their “bitter” taste…
Toads are more mysterious than frogs, more enigmatic, are a little set-in-their-ways in terms of rigidly following ancient migratory routes, even if that means crossing motorways these days - but they’ll always sum up the enchanted forest to me.
If you can help our mysterious, magical toads with their bright gold-leaf eyes then please do so. They’ll not thank you, but you’ll get a great sense of actually doing something to help one of our most wonderful, enigmatic wild creatures on their annual odyssey – they won’t bite (they have no teeth!) nor will they give you warts. It’s so easy to do – just follow the notes above each year – and always ensure that you are safe on the road at night. Wear a bright jersey or coat and carry torches!
To borrow (or paraphrase) from a blog of a fellow (local) wildlife enthusiast:
“There’s one antidote to gloom and despair that never fails: the wildlife that got us all going in the first place. It’s brilliant, beautiful, bewildering, intriguing and inspiring. We’ll probably do a lot more good if we spend more time outside engaging with it, rather than inside reading about or watching things (on tv) that make us angry….”
Grab a bucket, grab a torch and go help your local toads……!