FEATURE: Great Waldingfield patrol on a mission to rescue frogs and toads from perils of roads
Being tipped out of a bucket is not the most dignified way to arrive for a hot date. But if you are a toad, frog, or even a newt, it is probably one of the safest.
Every year, as the mating season arrives, countless thousands of them dice with death by crossing roads to reach the ponds where they breed.
For a few weeks in February, March and early April the unquenchable urge to get in on the action makes them hurl caution to the winds.
It means huge numbers of the increasingly-dwindling populations risk being squashed by traffic.
Luckily for some, help is at hand in the shape of a few, very dedicated, people ... toad patrol volunteers who go out every night in a bid to stop the carnage.
Armed with torches, buckets, hi-viz jackets, and the willingness to brave downpours and gales, they keep watch over known crossing points.
When they spot a toad or frog at the roadside they pounce, scoop them up, and carry them safely to the other side.
Froglife, the charity which supports the patrols through its Toads on the Road project, says toads return year after year to the same ponds. Frogs simply head for the nearest one.
Long-time wildlife champion George Millins organises a patrol in Folly Road, Great Waldingfield.
Every night - often for five hours at a stretch - he paces constantly up and down a few hundred yards of road.
Sometimes joined by other volunteers, sometimes on his own, he searches for frogs - toads rarely appear - heading for a pond near the village school.
On a damp and windy February evening he is out as usual, headtorch strapped over his hat, flashlight and bucket in hand, tirelessly scanning the road, pavement, and under hedges.
Suddenly, he shouts: “There’s one.” A female frog is poised on the kerb. Now it is a race against time to catch her before she dashes headlong to possible doom.
No point trying to get hold of her - “they’re very slippery,” he says - and much springier and faster than toads.
George positions the bucket in front of the unsuspecting frog. A gentle push and she hops in.
Meanwhile, fellow patroller Chris Francis saves another female. “She was sitting on the white line in the middle of the road,” says Chris who has been helping George for six years.
George keeps on the move, desperate not to miss the chance to save a life. “As things are now, every one is precious,” he says.
“We should all try and do more to help our wildlife. That includes making our gardens more wildlife-friendly.”
As the temperature drops, they decide it is probably time to call it a day, as cold will dampen the amphibians’ ardour.
Ian and Pat Ward started helping toads across the road when they moved to West Stow near Bury St Edmunds more than 20 years ago.
“We live on the road where the crossing is,” said Ian. “We saw the carnage and it developed from there.We started doing the patrol, going out in the evenings.
“I’m not an expert on toads, I just didn’t like to see them getting squashed.”
They were joined by Chris Gregory from West Stow Country Park who arranged a way of making their job a lot easier.
Because there is space at the roadside, they can put up a barrier to stop toads in their tracks before they reach the danger zone.
A foot-high roll of polythene is stretched between stakes. The toads queue up behind it making them simpler to collect.
But when ponds are in the middle of built-up areas - like the one in Great Waldingfield - it makes the patrollers’ task much harder, because you cannot put up a barrier on a pavement.
If it looks like a busy night Pat and Ian call in other volunteers to help. Wet weather is no deterrent, and amphibians love it.
“If it’s absolutely sheeting down with rain and a gale blowing, we dress up in waterproofs,” said Ian, a retired accountant.
“We can get 600 toads in an evening when it’s like that, but on a good mild night it’ll be something like 100.
“We’ll check the barrier around 7pm, again at 8.30 and at 11. Then we get up early around 6am to check what’s come across during the night.
“Last night and this morning we got about 140 toads, three frogs and a newt. The patrols have dramatically reduced the road kills.”
But he doesn’t really blame motorists for the deaths. “In fairness to drivers, you can’t see the toads. The road is lined with trees, and there are things like pine cones in the road, so it’s understandable they don’t realise they’re there.”
West Stow patrol rescued more than 1,500 toads last year. But numbers are way down. “Our record, several years ago, was 9,000,” said Ian.
He believes a deadly fungal infection may be partly to blame. Froglife says Chytrid fungus is a factor in the decline of toads and amphibians in general.
Loss of habitat ... not only ponds, but woodlands and suitable gardens where they find food and hibernate, has also played a part.
In Thurston, Trevor Goodfellow agreed to take over as toad patrol manager this year because the main crossing point is by his front gate.
“I am lucky to live in a very rural area which is home to both Smooth and Great Crested newts and many toads and frogs,” said Trevor, a keen naturalist whose main interest is butterflies and moths.
He says crossing roads is the main risk to frogs and toads. “Hundreds can easily be slaughtered by traffic as they migrate from hibernation towards their favoured pond.
“Fortunately for ‘my’ population, they must only cross a narrow back road, but still the casualties are high.
“I’ve enlisted the help of five volunteers via a local website. Five keen helpers is good, but I don’t think you can have too many, as some crossings are extensive.
“I would recommend at least four each night, so ‘reserves off the bench’ would be handy.
“Our local hot spot is Oak Road in Thurston where it seems the toads like to travel south to hibernate then, in the spring, cross the road and head back to our large private pond to spawn.
“Although only a single lane road, traffic is increasing. With the prospect of 1,500 more homes to be built in the village, inevitably all roads will be busier.”
Sheila Gundry, development manager at Froglife, appealed for more people to help with active patrols, and look after sites where there are currently no volunteers.
“Toad Patrol volunteers do a fantastic job – they saved 107,551 toads across the UK in 2019,” she said.
“Many are out every night in February and March helping toads across the roads to their breeding ponds. Without their help many of these toads would die.
“There has been a decline in toads of 68 percent over the last 30 years so this help is badly needed to conserve those remaining.”
More by this authorBarbara Eeles