Wilder Future: a toad's view

It’s always intrigued me that Kenneth Grahame chose Toad as his most impulsive, charismatic and rumbustious character. An adrenaline junky, desperate to be loved and the antithesis of Ratty’s grounded conservatism, Toad is the whirlwind that constantly threatens to upset the quiet order of things in the Wind in the Willows.

Our native “common” toad is a rather different character.  Cold blooded, shy and  sluggish, he is more likely to crawl than hop. He is also a creature of habit. Toads tend to stick to their ancestral migration patterns in the mating season, no matter what might be in the way.

Toad’s reproduction has been the subject if fascination for children for centuries. After mating, the larger females lay strings of spawn wrapped around vegetation. Weather depending, tadpoles hatch a fortnight to a month later.  The magical transformation of these shoals of helpless wrigglers, which grow first back then front legs, lose their tails and become toadlets, is one of nature’s wonders.

Toad

Toad may be no sprinter and lack sharp claws and teeth, but he’s not entirely defenceless.  He can produce a toxin from a pair of glands on his back which makes him distasteful or even toxic to would-be predators. If you can’t beat ‘em, poison ‘em.

There are two native species of toad in Britain, the common toad and the much rarer Natterjack toad.  The Natterjack is named after his very loud and chattering mating call and can be distinguished from his more widespread cousin by a yellow line along his back.  Always a resident of sandy heaths, he is now restricted to a few pockets of heathland and coastal areas outside Devon. 

Common toad in pond

Alan Price

Toads belong to that ancient group of vertebrates, the amphibians.  These creatures evolved from bony fish in the Devonian period some 400 million years ago.  They have primitive lungs and keep their skin moist as they breathe through it.  Toads and frogs don’t need to drink – they can leap in to a pond and absorb water through their skin. They have soft eggs without water proof shells, and so need to return to water to reproduce. Generally smaller than reptiles and mammals, the largest amphibian alive today is the Chinese giant salamader, which can reach almost 6 feet.  That’s a pale shadow of Prionosuchus plummeri, a giant from 270 million years ago that checked in at 9 metres (30 feet) long.

Toad’s ancient lineage may be very different from those of his distant mammalian relatives Ratty, Mole and Badger. But sadly the latest chapter in his long story is much the same. In the last 30 years we have lost 68% of these charming animals across the UK.

Amphibians no longer dominate the world as they did hundreds of million years ago, but they are still numerous and widespread.  More than 7,000 species are known to science worldwide – that’s nearly twice the number of mammals.

Toad’s ancient lineage may be very different from those of his distant mammalian relatives Ratty, Mole and Badger.  But sadly the latest chapter in his long story is much the same.  In the last 30 years we have lost 68% of these charming animals across the UK. Why?

First, it’s about ponds.  Once these were widespread in urban and rural areas.  Before piped water, muddy ponds in corners of fields were important drinking areas of cattle.  The mills that covered large parts of our industrial landscape had ponds to store water.  But now we pipe water to troughs, the mills have gone and we have tidied and drained our urban and rural landscapes.  More than two thirds of ponds have gone in the last hundred years, and half of those that remain are in poor condition due to pollution from agricultural land, run-off from tarmac and acid rain. 

Toad on street, looking pensive, but not necessarily forlorn

Secondly, it’s about roads.  After hauling themselves out of their muddy winter refuges, toads migrate across the landscape to spring breeding grounds and summer feeding areas.  But we have covered our country with a fine mesh of roads.  At the latest count we had over 262,000 miles of road in the UK, and this grows by about 200 miles a year.  Worse from Toad’s point of view, traffic levels have grown by a quarter in the last 25 years.  We drove 317 billion vehicle miles in 2015!  There’s no prize for guessing who comes off worse in an altercation between a fast moving car and a crawling toad.

But globally there are other threats.  As well as rampant deforestation and loss of natural wetlands, Chitrid fungus is infecting amphibians worldwide and is the reason that hundreds of species have faced extinction in recent years.  It is more common in tropical areas, but it has been found in the UK and toads are thought to be more susceptible than other amphibians. 

One quarter of the world’s species are at risk of extinction. But for amphibians, it’s 40%, higher than for any other group.

This weekend the United Nations’ shocking IPBES (International Panel on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services) report was published.  It’s yet another stark reminder of the crises facing our natural world.  It explains how one quarter of the world’s species are at risk of extinction.  But for amphibians, it’s 40%, higher than for any other group.  It’s not completely clear why, but their skin, which absorbs chemicals directly from the surrounding environment, makes them particularly susceptible to pollution,  Toad and his amphibian friends may well be the canaries in the coal mine.

Depressing yes, but, it’s not too late to head this off.  We can dig ponds in our gardens, in our schools, office grounds and in farmland.  We can protect our wildlife habitat better, and restore degraded wetlands and heaths.  We can cut pollution by reducing vehicle emissions and the use of chemical sprays on farmland.  And we can design our roads to be more toad friendly.  Individual action has a crucial role to play too.  Every year volunteers help toads to cross roads, ditches and other obstacles on their migration routes.  11,536 toads were helped at just one site in Norfolk in 2015.

And toads are useful to us too.  They eat slugs, insects and other garden pests, and they themselves are important food sources for many birds and other animals.  Toads and frogs have been used extensively in medical research, and several Nobel prizes in medicine and physiology have involved studies on them.  The chemical compounds found in their skin secretions are may prove useful in treatments ranging from non-addictive pain killers to cancer cures.

So here’s to warty, comical, ungainly toad, most ancient of creatures.  Our gardens, our natural heritage and our culture would be a great deal poorer without him.  But if we want him to be there for our grandchildren to marvel at, we’d better wake up and start fighting their corner.  

Join us in our campaign for a Wilder Future for Toad and us all.