Toad song

This was a piece for the Suffolk Magazine, published back in spring.

It’s hard to tell where one toad ends and another starts. It’s a throbbing knot, a slowly revolving mass of arms and legs. Male toads, smaller than the female, often hitch a piggyback to the breeding pond, sometimes riding pinion for three days until they fertilise long strings of gelatinous eggs. But this is a total bun fight, a slippery scrap for a single female whose legs have completely collapsed from the weight of lusty toad flesh.
I carefully pick them up, the male toads cranking up their calls, and shout out to Olly, who’s working further down the road.

“Five…six…no, seven more”.

“That’s 85 now”, he shouts back. I watch him walking slowly, the torch search-lighting across the ground in front of him.

We arrived in West Stow half an hour ago, keen to help out at one of the many toad crossings in Suffolk. They are places where asphalt and concrete have cut through the ancient song-lines of sex that still pull toads to breed. An already perilous journey has been transformed into a deadly game of chance with the odds heavily stacked against survival.

This crossing was set up by Pat and Ian Ward. They moved into their house 18 years ago, and were left horrified by the number of toads that were killed on the road. A canvas wall is now erected every year: staked into the grass verge to stop toads scrambling into the road. Brought up short, they sit and wait to be scooped up by volunteers and carried across the tarmac to be released under dark pines.

By being here tonight we are giving Pat and Ian a much-needed night off.

Ian explains: “I always feel honour-bound to walk the barrier at least once a night and start again at 5am. The barrier is generally up from mid-February to the end of March, so life stops for six weeks!”

The crossing obviously benefits the toads but it has other uses too, providing an insight into the health of toad populations. The number of dead toads collected from the road has dropped significantly: from 1,299 in 2008 when records at West Stow began to just 109 in 2016. But more worryingly, the number of live toads has also declined. In 2010 volunteers shepherded 9,053 toads across the road. Last year that number fell to just 1,239 – the lowest on record. The decline mirrors the picture across the country, a result of shrinking and fragmented habitat, climate change and other unknown factors.

I keep walking, taking my time with each toad, admiring their colours and textures – running my fingers over warty bumps the size of mustard seeds. I can hear Olly talking to his too, a low soothing chatter in reply to their startled oinks. The toads really are captivating, fascinating, and strangely “other”. In medieval times their bones were said to have unusual powers, while even Shakespeare bought into the belief that toads carried “a precious jewel” – a “toadstone” – in their heads. For centuries they have been associated with witchcraft, cast as familiars: a supernatural being that assists evil, magical acts.  Squatting in the darkness their reluctance to move can be slightly unnerving. Their eyes are dark; hypnotic and rimmed with gold.  Those that aren’t sitting, waiting for a female, inch forward. They don’t as much as hop as slowly sprawl; a languid commando crawl that reminds me of a climber tackling a vertical rock face.

The barrier stretches for what feels like a kilometre and now my ear is in I can hear them calling all along the road, a strange metallic scraping plink, like a high-pitched swan bark. Preeep-preep, preeep-preep; it is the whistled cat-call of the frustrated and amorous toad.