A long walk home

Common toad © Russell Savory

As we celebrate Valentine’s Day by showering our loved ones with cards and gifts, in the wild parts of our county other animals will be thinking about love too...

Deep in a Hertfordshire woodland under a log pile, something stirs. Copper eyes open, an olive-brown body with warty skin starts to move. A male common toad. It’s one of the first mild and damp evenings of the year and it marks the beginning of a long journey for this toad.

The days around Valentine’s Day often herald the beginning of spring in a few weeks’ time. At this time of year, millions of toads across the country, triggered by hormonal changes, will emerge from their overwintering sites – dry banks, compost heaps, dead wood or garden ponds – and begin their migration. Their instinct will lead them back to their breeding grounds – the ponds and wetlands in which they had started their life as a little tadpole – to find a mate. This journey can take them up to three miles – a walk equivalent to around 50 miles for us humans in comparison to their size.

Two toads mating underwater in a pond

Toads mating © Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

Once arrived at their pond, the males will often wait near the pond and look for arriving females to ‘piggy-back’, as they make their way into the water. The female toad will lay a string of eggs – also called spawn – into the pond and wrap it around the vegetation. After two to four weeks, the tadpoles will hatch and spend another four months in the pond until they have grown legs and developed into tiny toadlets. Contrary to frogs, toads spend most of their life away from water, so many adults will make a return migration from the breeding pond.

Toad crossing sign with road and car in background

Toad crossing © Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

In our modern world, their routes are riddled with roads, railways and other obstacles, making this voyage a very dangerous one. As a result, hundreds of thousands of toads never make it home to their breeding ponds. In early spring nights, so-called volunteer toad patrols will man crossings with many toads passing and help the animals cross safely. Despite these efforts, road deaths are having a significant impact on populations, but the biggest factor, like for many other wildlife species, is the loss of habitat and suitable breeding ponds in particular, which has led to a decline of toad numbers by nearly 70% in the past 30 years alone.

If we were to travel 50 miles on foot, we too would come across obstacles such as roads, railway tracks or built-up areas. However, contrary to toads, we have dedicated crossings and bridges we can use to stay safe along the way. The journey of a toad is a good example of why our natural world desperately needs a Living Landscape: nature reserves are great havens for wildlife, but they are not enough to stop wildlife decline. Our natural world needs green corridors that connect habitats through which toads and other animals can travel.

This is why Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust works beyond its nature reserves, together with landowners, councils and other organisations to create, maintain and connect wild spaces across the county. From towns and cities to gardens and golf courses, all the spaces we inhabit have the potential to support wildlife as well. But we all have to play our part in helping wildlife thrive. Our gardens take up more space than all of Britain’s nature reserves put together, so if all did just a little for wildlife in our garden, we could create a network of wild spaces across the country.

If you would like to give our struggling toads a helping hand, why not build a pond in your garden? It is one of the richest habitats you can create, providing food, water and a breeding place for a huge variety of wildlife. Ponds, rivers and streams in the wild are being lost and degraded by development, drainage and intensive farming, so a garden pond are an increasingly vital habitat, also acting as stepping stones between larger water bodies, providing a lifeline for animals unable to travel long distances. Once built, you might realise that your pond attracts aquatic invertebrates such as water boatmen and pond skaters, bathing birds, thirsty hedgehogs, bats on the hunt and amphibians such as toads and frogs.

Small tub pond

Container pond © Froglife

A garden pond doesn’t need to be large – a small container pond can make a great difference for wildlife. A washing-up bowl, a large plant pot, or a disused sink could all be repurposed as ponds. Make sure to create shallow edges and access so that creatures can get in and out, provide some aquatic plants and rocks and stones as hidey holes.