My friend, Karen, had been ‘spring cleaning’ her garden. A winter coat of moss had accumulated on the small deck, making it as slippery as an ice-rink, so she set to with scrubbing brush and bucket of water. Unfortunately, her hard work revealed the rotten wood beneath, so she called in her builder friend to get rid of the thing before someone took a tumble.
‘I never liked it anyway,’ Karen said cheerfully. ‘I think the previous home-owner was a big fan of ‘Ground-Force!’
After a morning of ripping up decrepit timbers, the builder suddenly stopped.
‘I think you’ve got a lodger,’ he shouted.
Lying low under the remains of the deck, snug against the house wall, was a large toad. With its greeny brown skin it was well camouflaged in a pile of logs and windblown leaves, only noticeable when it crawled a pace or two. Its eyes glowed like copper in the dim light, and the warty skin looked positively prehistoric. As a predator the toad is relatively small, at around 15cm long, but it can tackle a slow worm or a small mouse, as well as slugs and bugs.
‘I suppose it was hibernating.’ The builder scratched his head. ‘Looks like it’s going to be evicted now.’
‘No, wait!’ Karen looked around her modest garden. ‘There must be somewhere we can re-house him.’
‘Toady. Give me a couple of days; I’ll find something.’
Karen’s toad isn’t unusual in choosing a home without a pond or stream in sight. It seems that ‘bufo bufo’, to use the scientific name, only seeks a large expanse of water during mating season. Depending on the weather, they can emerge from hibernation as early as January if conditions are mild. Mainly nocturnal, they do enjoy a daylight wander after a spot of rain, but Toady seemed reluctant to go anywhere.
This is a good thing. Spring can be a dangerous time, particularly at dusk, as toads set off on the annual pilgrimage to the breeding ponds, risking life and limb evading cars and vans on country lanes. Luckily for the toads, many have guardian angels in the shape of toad patrols, whose volunteers, equipped with hi-viz vests and torches, scoop the amorous amphibians into buckets and carry them to the safety of the pond.
Once they’ve reached the breeding ground, the fight to secure a mate begins. If successful, the female lays long strings of eggs, as many as 20,000, in the weeds at the water’s edge and in around two weeks these hatch into tadpoles. If they can avoid being eaten by predators such as fish, birds and frogs, the tadpoles will gradually lose their tails, and develop into adult toads. Their knobbly skin carries a foul-tasting toxin which deters predators, although some, like wily otters, have figured out how to detach the toxic parts.
Karen limited her toad rescuing efforts to one particular specimen. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, she tracked down a dark green, ceramic ‘toad house’ for next-day delivery, and installed it in a dark, damp corner of the garden under a large hydrangea. When push came to gentle prod, and the remnants of the rotten deck were gingerly removed, Toady scuttled off in disgust – making a beeline for his new home on short, sturdy legs.
Meanwhile, Karen’s boyfriend, Mike, had been tidying up his own garden and was delighted to discover a toad of his own. It had taken up residence in a soakaway by the garage, and was surrounded by fat, juicy slugs.
‘I got rid of them all’, he said. ‘I can’t have my toad living in all that mess.’
‘You realise that was probably its larder you tidied away?’ Karen said. ‘You’d better go and find it some more slugs!’