Although they spend much of their adult lives on land, all of our native species of amphibian return to fresh water to breed. Common Toads (Bufo bufo) in particular are strongly tied to their ancestral breeding pond, and will travel some distance to get back to breed in the pond in which they were born.
In the modern world this often means navigating a perilous journey through the built landscape full of roads, cars, drains, walls and predatory pets.
These added man-made dangers, along with introduced diseases and climate change, have contributed to a 68% decline in our native Common Toads over the past couple of decades.
A great way of helping our Common Toads and their frog and newt cousins is to join a Toad Patrol. Each spring Toad Patrollers across the country go out on wet, warm nights to collect up imperilled amphibians in buckets and help them on their way across roads, busy streets or out of drains.
Do you know of a local amphibian population in need of a helping hand?
If your local street or neighbourhood has a population of toads, frogs or newts which face dangers such as road crossings, pit drains or even the footfall of unsuspecting residents then this is the perfect place to start a Toad Patrol, as local residents have done in the Roundhill area of Brighton (see below).
Roundhill Toad Patrol
Paolo Oprandi, Roundhill Toad Patroller
A narrow lane in central Brighton’s Roundhill area is host to a large number of amphibians who congregate there during February and March, their breeding season. In 2020 local residents formed a toad patrol to monitor amphibian numbers and put up signs to notify residents of their presence along the lane. Most toad patrols are set up to carry toads from one side of a road to another to reduce road casualties, but these locals only count the amphibians.
The toads gather on the lane when returning from hibernation sites to their ancestral ponds that many of the local gardens host. They hang around looking for a partner. The lane seems to be some sort of pickup area where the amphibians hang out to find a mate.
Urban environments that host natural spectacles such as these are very lucky, but the story of toads, newts and frogs even in this area is not a simple one and their future here is at risk.
Every year toads try to return to their ancestral ponds whatever the barrier, whether it be a wall or a fast road. In this area there are a number of ancestral ponds that are important mating grounds for toads. The lane is an area that the amphibians head for on the way to their ponds in order to pick up a mate.
In the first three years of the patrol, locals recorded toads congregating on the steps in mid-February, but in 2023 they did not arrive for another month. We think that this is because the end of January and first half of February were too dry and then it was too cold. The past two years had experienced similar weather anomalies. Thank goodness for the warmer rains in the second half of March returning our climate to some normality.
Nevertheless, not all is well for our toads. During the season of 2023 the highest count on a given night was 24 toads, which was less than half of 2020 and 2021 when in one night they were counting around 50 (and these numbers were lower than counts they had heard about in previous years which were as high as 85). The total number of toads counted over the entire season was 240, which was much better than it could have been had it not been for the March rains, but still only a little over half of the number in their first year.
The story of the newts is slightly different. They too return from their winter hibernation sites to suitable breeding ponds that many of the locals’ gardens host. The newts can be seen congregating in the cracks and the crevices of the lane’s walls and in the foliage along the edge, enjoying the darkness and the damp.
This year they saw 8 newts on one night and 54 over the whole season. The numbers were better than those recorded in both 2021 and 2022, but still much below counts in 2020 when they counted 139 with 36 in one night.
Frogs have a different story altogether. Frog populations have suffered tremendously from ranavirus, an imported disease from the USA in the 1990s, and we no longer see the numbers in our garden pond than we used to, but they are still here. They breed in our ponds but their fast, long jumps mean they are quick to arrive and quick to leave.
This year the number of frogs seen in the lane increased dramatically compared to any other year. When the warmer rains began, the frogs jumped quickly into action and on the night of the 12th March local surveyors saw 10 frogs! A total of 18 frogs were seen over the whole season. Although these frog numbers are still very low compared to the toads, it is still much higher than any previous year on the steps and we are hopeful this is indicative of a wider recovery of frog populations from the effects of ranavirus.
We have come away from the season with a much greater sense of the extent to which our amphibians are susceptible to weather changes, and how prolonged periods of cold and dry can affect populations. I’m left with sad thoughts of the devastating effects the droughts in the Mediterranean must be causing.
We can help our amphibian friends though. You may have a lane near you where amphibians congregate during February and March that would benefit from being monitored and having signs to notify people passing by. Maintaining a healthy pond in your garden or in a communal space, filled with rainwater and native plants will help amphibians and many other animals besides. Given juveniles and adults spend two thirds of the year on land, creating undisturbed terrestrial habitats can also help them. In particular, surround ponds with native wildflowers meadows connecting up to nearby compost heaps, native hedgerows and bushes will give your resident amphibians all the cover and food they need throughout the year. They also like to hide out in holes in brickwork, upturned terracotta pots, and under tree stumps.
Whilst moving frog and toad spawn was once thought to be acceptable or even good practice, widening distribution, ranavirus has shown how it can also lead to the spread of disease, so wildlife agencies now recommend that we do not move amphibians or their spawn.
Thinking ahead, we’re left with some hope that we might see a rise in some, if not all our amphibian populations in 2024. Although the toad and newt numbers were lower this year than when the patrol started in 2020, we imagine that the March showers have allowed for good breeding conditions in the ponds. The rise in frog numbers is exciting too and we are intrigued to find out how they will fare. Will frog numbers continue to jump? Will newts swim to the top? Can toads crawl back?
“BHWF looks forward to a future where nature and our community live together to our mutual benefit, enabling our city to play its part in addressing the nature and climate crises.”
Last updated 25 February 2021