The fate of the toad in Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 16:57 03 February 2020
Ahead of Valentine's Day, Frieda Rummenhohl of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust takes a look at the long-distance love life of a warty favourite under threat
Deep in a Hertfordshire woodland under a log pile, something stirs. Copper eyes open, an olive-brown body with warty skin begins to move. It's one of the first mild and damp evenings of the year and it marks the beginning of a long journey for this male common toad.
The days around Valentine's Day often herald the time when millions of toads across the country, triggered by hormonal changes, emerge from their overwintering sites - dry banks, compost heaps, dead wood or garden ponds - and begin their migration. Instinct leads them back to their breeding grounds - the ponds and wetlands in which they started their lives as tadpoles - to find a mate. This journey can be up to three miles - a walk equivalent to 50 miles for us.
Once back at their pond, males will often wait nearby and look for arriving females to 'piggy-back', as they make their way into the water. The female will lay a string of eggs, called spawn, which are fertilised by the male and wrapped around vegetation. After two to four weeks, the tadpoles will hatch and spend another four months in the pond until they have grown legs and developed into tiny toadlets. Contrary to frogs, toads spend most of their life away from water, so many adults will make a return migration away from the breeding pond. Their routes are however riddled with roads, railways and other obstacles, making this voyage a dangerous one. As a result, hundreds of thousands of toads never make it back to their breeding ponds.
To help cut these numbers, on early spring nights, volunteer 'toad patrols' man crossings where many toads pass to help them cross safely. Despite these efforts, road deaths are having a significant impact on populations. But the biggest factor, as for many other wildlife, is the loss of habitat and in particular, suitable breeding ponds, which has led to a 68 per cent decline in toad numbers in the UK in the past 30 years.
The journey of a toad is a clear example of why our natural world desperately needs a 'living landscape'. Nature reserves are great havens for wildlife but they are not enough to stop declines. Our natural world needs green corridors that connect habitats through which toads and other animals can travel.
This is why Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust works beyond its nature reserves, together with landowners, councils and other organisations to create, maintain and connect wild spaces across the county. From towns and cities to gardens and golf courses, all the spaces we inhabit have the potential to support wildlife. But we all have to play our part in helping wildlife thrive. Our gardens make up more space than all of Britain's nature reserves put together, so if we all did just a little for wildlife in our gardens, we could create a network of wild spaces across the country.
If you would like to give our struggling toads a helping hand, why not build a pond in your garden? It is one of the richest habitats you can create, providing food, water and a breeding place for a huge variety of wildlife. Ponds, rivers and streams in the wild are being lost and degraded by development, drainage and intensive farming, so garden ponds are an increasingly vital habitat, also acting as stepping stones between larger waterbodies and providing a lifeline for animals unable to travel long distances. Once built, you might discover that your pond attracts aquatic invertebrates such as water boatmen and pond skaters, bathing birds, thirsty hedgehogs, bats on the hunt and amphibians such as toads and frogs.
A garden pond doesn't need to be large - a small container can make a great difference to wildlife. A washing-up bowl, a large plant pot, or a disused sink could all be repurposed as ponds. Just make sure to create shallow edges and access so that animals can get in and out, and provide some aquatic plants and rocks and stones as hidey holes.
Read more about making a pond at wildaboutgardens.org.uk