Country diary: frustrated toads could do with a helping hand

Much as I love toad breeding season for the way it brings thousands to Lightwood’s ponds, it’s actually a dangerous time for them. For seven evenings a friend’s daily exercise involved patrolling a stretch of river with a bucket to retrieve trapped toads. This year we estimate that he, with minor contributions from others, including me, has saved 1,100.

The problem is that toads arriving from the north and west are channelled, before they reach the spawning ground, into a stone-lined culvert that contains the flow of Hogshaw Brook. They are then blocked by a two-metre wall and are doomed, unless they can find a way over. One route for 30 of them was in the pockets of my smock, after which I released them on the lip of the water – a moment that felt wonderful for the old toad in my soul.

Unfortunately, there are other hazards. In normal circumstances, a female acquires her mate en route to the pond or in the water. (Apparently it’s the quality of his voice that determines her choice.) They couple and the female spawns. But a small number, possibly the largest females, are subjected to a frenzy of attention from mateless males. They can become completely enfolded in would-be suitors and loll helplessly, the males with faces squashed on some part of her as if to smother her in adoration; in these stressed circumstances, she can drown.

Females toads are far larger than their mates but both possess extraordinary orange-gold eyes.

I observed one aggregation where the female surfaced intermittently as the whole body-ball slowly, randomly, revolved in the water. Occasionally she would roll on her back, her pale belly globed at the surface, her powerful arms and legs spread, when there was about her an aura of extraordinary forbearance but little pleasure.

This passivity is not always maintained. I saw a neighbouring toad ball in which the female twisted and roiled in the middle of her male pack. They fell away and she issued a final sequence of powerful strokes with her legs to batter any last suitors. Eventually she was free, except for one male, and she swam away with enormous vigour like some immense beast with a small child on its back.

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