Guy Willcock, young environmentalist
I first realised I was living in the middle of a mass annual amphibian migration when I was nine. Every February, thousands of toads, frogs and newts would make their halting way across the road outside our house, all going in one direction. Their destination was a lake just below our garden, sitting in the bowl of the valley, and as it turns out, a perfect haven for breeding.
At first all I was aware of was my Mum and Dad piling out of the house as soon as it got dark, clad in bright yellow jackets and clutching buckets and torches, off to “help the toads”. It was an annual ritual my Grandmother had been involved in, back in the 1960s and ‘70s, using frying pans and the like. It was a completely spontaneous reaction by local people to the dangers facing the local amphibian population when they had to brave the local traffic in order to reach their breeding site.
I think everyone remembers their first ‘toad patrol’ vividly. We would walk slowly up and down our road, shining torches from side to side, in search of frustrated amphibians trapped by the many high walls that line the lane. Despite the fact that the local council has agreed to close the lane to through traffic for six weeks each spring, to give the migration a chance, vehicles still come through, particularly at local rush-hours in the morning and evening. It is vital to get the creatures over the walls and into the safety of the fields below.
Sometimes we would find nothing. Several times we would pop ten or twenty slow-moving toads, leapy frogs and tiny, delicate newts into our buckets over the evening, and then place them in neighbouring gardens, with a free route across fields down to the lake. Very often, patrols would last just twenty minutes, especially if the evening was too cool or too dry, for anything to emerge. Other times, we might go out on three or four separate hour-long excursions, sometimes past midnight, if the perfect conditions – mild and wet – combined for a mass crossing. On my road, these mass crossings can total over 600 amphibians rescued in one night.
The village is particularly busy because it consists of a bowl-shaped valley with a lake at the bottom – the amphibians like living in the fields at the top of the bowl, and then migrating down the hill to breed in the lake. The problem is that there is a road tracing the curve of the valley like a horseshoe, cutting the creatures off from their breeding ground with high walls.
Frogs are quite leapy, and perhaps stand a better chance of finding their way up or down the road to one of several open gateways. Toads face a huge challenge. They are slow movers anyway, and very often when you come across them, they are sitting in the middle of the road, perfectly still, seemingly baffled by the fact that they can’t get directly to their breeding site.
Newts can be quite nippy, but are much more difficult to spot, being small and bearing a close resemblance to fallen twigs and leaves, of which are there always plenty on the lane. They are also very delicate, and you have to take great care in picking them up and transferring them to a safe place.
All amphibians like to come out when it is mild and wet. The fact that most of the busiest toad migrations down the valley happen when its pelting down with rain is one of the things you just have to get used to pretty quickly as a toad patroller.
Carnage on the roads
Something else you learn is just how vital the work is. Twenty tons of toads are killed every year on Britain’s roads. In the last 40 years the amphibian population of the UK has halved. Despite the best efforts of our local volunteer group, we frequently recover two or three dead toads and frogs during an evening.
Our group is connected to Froglife UK, and as well as learning about the amphibian crisis from them, we also supply them with all our data on what we have rescued and when. Comparisons between years is tricky. All sorts of different factors can affect the numbers of creatures spotted by patrollers. In the spring of 2018, for instance, the migration started unusually early after a very mild winter. Then there was a week of snow in February, which stopped the crossings completely. Once the snow thawed, there was a second spurt of movement. Spring 2019 was more ‘normal’, with a single phase of migration lasting not much more than the six-week closure period.
But there is no doubt of the carnage each year and the worrying overall trend in numbers in the UK. A great encouragement is reading about other volunteer toad and frog rescue groups around the country on Twitter, and how they have been doing. Some breeding sites are separated from their living habitats by busy main roads, making any crossing extremely problematic.
Data from Froglife UK (2018)
· number of toads helped at crossings in the UK: 98,483
· number of toads killed at manned toad crossings: 8,443
· number of toad crossing sites that return data to Froglife: 165
· the toad population at each site varies dramatically from 100 to 10,000
As a local volunteer, it’s exciting to know that all our figures are fed into Froglife’s National Monitoring Project, along with figures from similar groups all over the country. These figures in turn are shared with the European Network for Protection of Amphibians and Reptiles from Transport Systems.
Our local group is also now helping with academic research. Our latest initiative involves cutting off a foot from toads that are found dead on the road, sealing them in formaldehyde-filled tubes and sending them to Simon Maddock at the University of Wolverhampton. Simon is investigating toad declines across the UK and the implications that declines may have from a genetic perspective in the long term. He is carrying out his pioneering research in collaboration with ARC Trust, University of Salford.
The next generation
When it comes to summertime, if you walk down to the bottom of our garden near the lake, you will be met by hoards of froglets and toadlets hopping around your feet, all of them less then a few centimetres long, just as they start their own journeys back up the bowl-shaped valley that their parents ventured down some months before.
One of the strangest facets of being a toad volunteer is that you only see your fellow patrollers in the pitch dark, when they are well wrapped up against the wet weather. So in the summer months we hold a ‘Toad Fest’ in our garden, a barbecue for the volunteers to get to know each other better and tell tales of amphibian rescue. It is also an opportunity for all the volunteers to see the next generation of local amphibians for themselves.
The group is probably typical of any collection of local people drawn together to try and help with the environment. It consists of men, women, old and young, including a journalist, a university academic, a charity worker, two retired nurses, a retired doctor, a jewellery designer and an artist, amongst others. In its modest way the group demonstrates how real environmental change can be achieved spontaneously by groups of people working together, from the bottom up. Linking these efforts across the country to a national co-ordinator and academic studies is a powerful model. Froglife has started to a run a ‘Toad Summit’ in Bath to bring together volunteers from different patrols to share ideas, suggestions and best practice. I am proud to be a member of my local toad rescue group. And it’s good fun. I am looking forward to encouraging other young people to volunteer in their own local patrols. They won’t regret it.
Guy Willcock is a secondary school student who is passionate about the environment and a sustainable future. He has been a toad rescue volunteer with his local community group since he was nine years old, helping migrating amphibians to get to their breeding site each spring. In 2018 Guy was named an Environmental Hero in his city for his work with the group and the People’s Choice Award for his dedication to the community. He is a Young Green Ambassador for Groundwork Youth. In his spare time Guy likes to read, write and play rugby. He also enjoys playing the piano and drums.
Contact: Twitter @GuyWillcock
This article was first published in 2020 in Vol 123 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition had a particular focus on biodiversity.