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Froggies go a-courting... and it lasts days; They're no beauties, but amphibians can delight.

Byline: Polly Pullar

Every year I eagerly anticipate one of nature's important rituals. And every year it consumes me more.

Since childhood, I have relished and recorded the seasonal journeys of frogs and toads as they travel to their breeding grounds. My thoughts are always tinged with sadness. These perfect little creatures seem so vulnerable - vulnerable entirely due to the way we live our lives.

The common toad is not perhaps the first species one thinks of when it comes to beauty.

However, this much-overlooked little amphibian is delightful in its own way - beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

There is a derogatory old saying that, in order to find your prince you have to kiss a lot of toads - further evidence that we have long found them repellent.

The warty lumps behind a toad's alluring, amber eyes secrete a toxic substance that helps to deter predators. It does no harm to humans but, on occasion, a dog picking one up may foam at the mouth.

Before we knew better it was believed that the innocent toad carried rabies, something that added to our fear and loathing of them. Then, of course, there was their association with witchcraft.

Human toadeaters performed macabre acts in fun fairs to attract the crowds, and in a sham ritual faked swallowing a live toad.

However, it was the soap hidden in their mouths that caused the frothy saliva, not the toad. There then followed a grisly feigned act of acute pain as if the toadeater was about to die. A waiting accomplice then carted off the afflicted whilst the live toad secreted in clothing was used for the next event. Poor toad!

Another bizarre belief was that the eggs of the wheatear, a bird that comes here to breed, hatched out into toadlets. Heaps of stones provide ideal dank, dark habitat for toads and on a hillside, the proximity of wheatear nests toad refuges gave rise to this crazy notion.

The toad has a fascinating lifestyle and is indeed a charming, benign creature, an important part of our ecosystems.

Depending on temperature and weather conditions and lured by the scent of glycolic acid from pond algae, as well as an overwhelming breeding urge, the seasonal amphibian migration usually begins with the arrival of the aquatic frog.

Toads tend to appear a little later.

Thought to be more intelligent than frogs, they are choosy in the places where they lay their double strings of spawn, preferring deeper, permanent ponds, and don't lay spawn randomly in puddles and ditches doomed to failure. Some of these haunts have been used for generations.

When the action starts there may be hundreds on the move, giving the false impression that all is well in the amphibian world.

Worryingly, this is not the case. Amphibians are in serious decline due to habitat loss, wetland drainage, intensive agriculture, and our constantly expanding road network.

According to conservation charity Froglife, an estimated 20 tonnes of toads are killed on our roads every year. The common toad has declined by 50% in some areas.

In the animal kingdom, there can be few more passionate beings. And The fictitious Mr Toad few as tenacious! It is usually the smaller males that I literally stumble upon as I go to the pond for my annual amphibian-worshipping fix.

Their little determined forms cover the path and are at risk from walkers' boots, and horses' hooves.

If they have made it this far, they have played Russian Roulette with traffic. I scoop loads of them up into the folds of my jersey and transport them gently to the pond's writhing cauldron where the annual amphibian orgy is in full swing. These males are seeking out the females that are large and bloated with eggs. They will then mate, clasping them in a grip known as amplexus, that can last for hours, or even days. Sometimes the males are so driven by their urges that it is not unusual to find a frantic heap all atop one another. Underneath, the unfortunate female often succumbs to suffocation.

Sometimes I find male toads tightly clasping on to a frog - it's not only humans that occasionally pair up with the wrong partner.

The rarest amphibian in this country is the natterjack toad, a protected species. In Scotland, they are only found on the Solway Coast with the best known breeding site at the RSPB's Mersehead Reserve in Dumfries & Galloway. A beautiful extensive area of wetland and saltmarsh, it's the ultimate place for breeding waders and wintering waterfowl. In spring and summer, lapwings and skylarks serenade with their glorious avian orchestrations.

As dusk falls, behind the dunes, natterjack toads begin their joyful percussion, their churring croaks carrying great distances on calm evenings long into the night.

Natterjacks differ from common toads. They are smaller and more active chasing after their invertebrate prey rather than waiting to ambush.

They have a distinctive yellow line down their backs, and greeny-gold eyes, and favour different habitat. Females lay single chains of spawn in pools situated behind the dune slacks, and by using impermanent pools, their hatching tadpoles are less likely to be predated by dragonfly larvae and small fish giving them a greater chance of success.

At Mersehead James Silvey has been working with the RSPB team on the reserve to help this precious toad. When he started in 2014 a massive storm surge had damaged the dune system. There were grave concerns for the toads hibernating in the sandy ground behind.

Surveys at that time revealed very few, and there were fears they had almost died out.

Dune systems are dynamic and alter constantly but in this particular storm, some that had previously been very high were beaten into submission by the sea, and were almost non-existent and the places favoured by the toads badly blasted with seawater.

Previous methods of surveying in the daytime were unreliable and so the team changed tactics and began looking for the toads on still nights, whilst listening for their persistent calls.

They also created a series of small pools behind the dunes and cleared invasive plants and encroaching scrub such as hawthorn to maintain the important salt marsh.

Though natterjacks, like all amphibians, have good years and bad, it seems the dedicated work to improve and boost their habitat has been extremely efficacious.

Estimates suggest that, in the past three years, they have increased five-fold. In the surveys of 2018 more than 300 toads were found, and some 2,000 toadlets seen in just a single day.

The RSPB has recently acquired more of the surrounding area. This important extension to their land will hopefully help to provide the intriguing natterjack toad with exactly the conditions it requires whilst safeguarding its future.

I cannot claim to have kissed many toads, but my passion for both species continues to grow, and this excellent positive news due entirely to the RSPB's superb work, is cause for celebration, particularly when nature is up against it as never before.


When common toads gather to mate, the male embraces the female and fertilises her long string of eggs
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Publication:The Sunday Post (Aberdeen,Scotland)
Date:Jul 7, 2019
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