Intelligent Mr Toad
I hate it when the clocks go back. It’s still dark when I have to get up and already black as pitch when I finish work. Yet some creatures welcome the night, like this handsome copper-eyed chap I disturbed whilst stacking logs, the Common or European Toad Bufa bufa. Which you may notice has a tautonymous scientific name, where the first part, the genus, is exactly the same as the second part, the specific epithet.
Unless woken prematurely, toads normally remain hidden during the day to avoid being attacked by predators. Whilst it’s true that they are able to secrete a nasty irritant from their skin which prevents many predators from eating them. It doesn’t work on grass snakes or that other nocturnal wanderer the hedgehog, or help them much if they’ve just received a mauling from a domestic cat or a stabbing from a heron, so it makes sense to keep out of sight. If they avoid being eaten then they can be surprisingly long-lived, up to 50 years in captivity, although in the wild they’ll be lucky to reach twelve.
As dusk descends they wake to spend the hours of darkness hunting for invertebrates, snails and slugs and so do a great service to the gardener. But at this time of year they really do need to crack-on if they are to build-up enough fat reserves to see them through the long winter hibernation.
In late February, or early March they’ll wake to start the hazardous nightime journey back to where they were born, which can be 2 or 3 miles away. Sadly many are killed on our roads at this time by inconsiderate or ignorant motorists. But once they arrive at their destination a spectacular orgy ensues. Males throw caution to the wind and seemingly having lost their fear of daylight pile on top of each other in their frenzy to mate with a female. Often outnumbering females five to one, it is not uncommon when walking the shallow margins of a lake or pond at this time of year to find huge writhing balls of toads with just a single female in the middle (who occasionally drowns).
Once mating is over the females will wind their double strings of spawn in-between the underwater plant stems. Soon these little jelly dots will hatch into the wriggling tadpoles so familiar to small boys with jam jars and the cycle will start again.
But best of all it will signify that spring is on it’s way and we can put the damn clocks forward.