Each spring I help organize the Toadwatch Patrols that this year saved over 15,000 Norfolk toads from being run over whilst on the way to their historic breeding ponds - we carry the toads across the roads in buckets. Toads often move on wet and windy nights so patrollers find themselves out on the roads with just a torch whilst everyone else is indoors watching the TV or driving around in their heated, air conditioned metal boxes. It is interesting how quickly being out in the dark with just toads to talk to makes you see the world through different eyes. The humans rushing past in their cars and hidden behind their curtains become an alien species whilst you identify with the toads, and the foxes and owls that are out hunting them.
One wet night in February I picked up a large, old female toad on her way to the pond and she asked me why there were so many more cars going through the village now, compared to twenty years ago when she was just a tadpole. I explained that the pub in the village offers cheap meals so many people drive here from miles away. The toad asked why the people didn’t use pubs near where they live – I replied that lots of pubs have shut because of lack of custom. The toad asked whether people in the village walked to their local pub. ‘No they mainly drive to pubs in other villages’ I said. ‘So they can squash other toads?’ - asked my friend. I didn’t like the way this conversation was heading and at this point I spotted two toads in the road and a vehicle approaching. I always wear a hi viz jacket and it is a 30mph limit (in theory) so I shone my torch on the toads and stepped out to rescue the toads – the car was still some distance away. I picked up one toad but the driver of the large 4wd drove on till there was an audible plop as his massive tyre stopped directly on the other toad. Our eyes met across the bonnet – clearly he was furious at having been made to stop but I could not tell if he had seen the Toad Crossing signs or had any idea of what I was doing in the road. I moved and he screeched off in a cloud of diesel smoke.
I took my bucket of toads to the pond and watched as they swam of to join in the mating frenzy that has occurred each spring for more than 300 million years- since amphibians were the first vertebrates to colonize the land.
Being out with the toads makes you realize just how pointless are a lot of the journeys on which we squander our precious oil. You see the same cars going back and forth. Parents spend hours transporting children miles to clubs in other parts of the county yet getting people to help with facilities in the village is difficult. People drive to supermarkets yet village shops and post offices are closing. The toads can’t tell us what we should be doing but they have seen off big footed dinosaurs and are confident they will still be here when the only oil fuelled cars are in museums.
Footnote - Toads secrete a poisonous protective substance called bufagin which is made up of a hallucinogen, bufotenine, and several glycosides similar to the heart stimulant digitalin from Foxgloves. Some people have been known to lick them to get high – NOT recommended but I do pick up a lot of toads and may have absorbed some bufagin! I should also point out that many drivers are considerate and once they are aware of the toads they do their best to avoid them.