Friday 12 April 2024

Toads Crossing by Jenny Palmer, a lager and lime

A sign appears every spring on the roadside down by the lodge, which reads ‘Careful. Randy toads crossing.’ It’s where the single-track road bends and narrows so that you have to slow down because you can’t see the traffic coming towards you. The sign is put there every year by a well-meaning resident to protect the toads on their way to their regular breeding habitat. It is a gentle reminder for car drivers to pay attention to one of the other species that we share our planet with.

This year, due to milder weather conditions, the toads started crossing earlier. By mid-March, the stretch of road between the brook and the mill lodge was littered with bodies, some dead, some alive. The lodge was built by twelfth-century Cistercian monks to turn the wheel of their corn mill and subsequently that of the cotton mill in the eighteenth century. The males are the first to arrive, eager to mate, followed by the females. Sometimes they can’t wait until they reach the water. The female lays her spawn in long threads in the water and then they both retreat, leaving the tadpoles to develop and fend for themselves.

Back in the day, there wasn’t the same amount of traffic, just the odd horse and cart. These days cars whizz past at all times of day, taking children to school and people to work and delivery vans are prolific. One night I found myself driving along the road after dark. I did my best to weave between the brown lumps sticking up, which could have been toads or could equally have been sticks, left behind after a recent storm. It had been raining, prime time for the toads to emerge. When the lumps started moving, I realised they were alive and resolved to go the other way home, even though it added a couple of miles to my journey. I’m not a great lover of toads. I just didn’t want multiple deaths on my conscience.

Next day I did some digging and worked out these were woodland toads. They were olive brown in colour, with short bodies, short legs, and dry, warty skin. They clearly weren’t frogs which are olive green, with smooth, moist skin, and longer legs. Both toads and frogs lay their spawn in water, but whereas toads can live on dry land, frogs stay close to water all year round. Toads prefer deeper water like lodges and return to their native breeding grounds every year. Both species are in decline and are regarded as priority species, and therefore protected from sale and trade. Currently the lifespan of the woodland toad is said to be ten to twelve years in the wild, as compared to fifty in captivity. No doubt this is shortened by the hazardous journeys they undertake in the breeding season. I didn’t want to contribute to their decline.

  My other pet hate, as far as wildlife is concerned, is slugs and snails. Recently there have been pronouncements in the media about the benefits of having these in the garden: they consume dead plants and animals, recycle nutrients back into the soil and create nutritious compost. We should no longer regard slugs and snails as pests, we are told, should stop polluting the environment by using dangerous toxins in the form of slug pellets and learn to love the creatures. It seemed like a stretch.

 I tend to dispose of snails by throwing them over the garden fence into the nearby field, although they invariably make their way back. I find slugs repulsive and can’t bring myself to touch them. I admit to using the odd slug pellet. I’ve watched the creatures munch their way through my newly planted lettuces and carefully tended seedlings and literally demolish my dahlias but I’ve never been one for the more macabre methods of disposal, suggested on gardening advice websites: cutting them in half with a pair of scissors, drowning them in beer, covering them in salt or plunging them into boiling water.  

Over time I have come to an accommodation with the creatures. If they don’t come near me, I won’t go near them. But I draw the line at them sneaking into my kitchen. It is an encroachment on my territory, and they have no place there. On summer evenings after rain, I’ll often see them slithering across the Lino, or draping themselves over the draining board beside the sink. I can never work out just how they managed to get in but suspect they climbed up the drainpipe into the sink. It is always a shock to find them lurking when I go into the kitchen to make a bedtime drink.

Depending on how resilient I am feeling, I will either scoop them up with a brush and shovel and deposit them outside the backdoor or scoot back into the living room, leaving them to their own devices. It never ceases to amaze me how next morning there is no sign they have ever been there, apart from the slimy trails left behind on the rug. So, I was dismayed this year when they started appearing in winter too, no doubt because of the milder temperatures we’ve been having. I didn’t know how I was going to handle it.

The answer to my dilemma came unexpectedly. I was on my way to the garage the other night, when I came across a toad squatting quietly under the hedge. Initially I couldn’t help myself and recoiled in horror. But I took a hold of myself, remembering what I had been reading. Toads are not dependent on water to the same extent as frogs and can live in dry places like gardens for prolonged periods of time. Their diet consists of beetles, spiders, and ants, as well as slugs and snails. This was music to my ears.

Being a priority species, toads need our protection, I reasoned. I welcomed the toad into my garden. It could stay there as long as it liked. 

About the author 

Jenny Palmer writes short stories, poetry, memoir and family history. Her stories are on the Cafelit website. Her collection 'Keepsake and other stories,' published by Bridge House, 2018, is available on Amazon. Her latest book 'Witches, Quakers and Nonconformists,' 2022, is sold at the Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford. 

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