It's a chilly February afternoon when I get the text.
"The toads are on the move"
Enigmatic it may be, but like some sort of amphibian secret agent I know exactly what it means. Along with a handful of other people across London I've been waiting for this missive for several weeks. The time has come for us to mobilise and put our training into practise. In a single message my Saturday night has morphed from a date with a nice chap in a cosy restaurant to one with a bewildered toad on a road in Cockfosters.
Who knew the British equivalent of the great Wildebeest migration across the Maasai Mara happens at the end of the Piccadilly line? But apparently it does. As soon as the thermometer strays above 5 degrees the toads of Trent park wake up, yawn and start thinking about sex. It’s time for them to make the mile long pilgrimage from their winter woodland hideaway to their ancestral pond. This they do en masse along an ancient migratory route; one that they've been following since before Henry IV first declared the park a Royal hunting ground back in the fifteenth century. Upon arrival the fun really begins. The Trent park toads are the ultimate suburban swingers and and embark upon the kind of orgy that would make even Charlie Sheen blush.
It's a treacherous journey. Over the centuries the randy toads have had to dodge not just the pounding of Royal horses hooves but the boots of German officers interned in the park during its brief spell as an open prison during WWII. And now cars. An estimated 20 tonnes of toads get squished every year on Britain's roads making the location of the A111 beside the toad’s ancestral pond more of a menace than goose-stepping Nazis. Which is where I come in. I'm the latest volunteer for the local toad patrol and it's my job to ensure the Trent park toads get past the cars and get laid. Their future depends on it.
I'm excited about the prospect of witnessing such a spectacle. Although somewhat nervous about creeping around a park after dark. I'm loitering self-consciously at the entrance, scanning the road for toads when, thankfully, Andy arrives. Andy's been watching the Trent park toads for almost two decades. Worryingly he tells me the last few years haven't yielded the usual bumper crop.
"It used to be like an ocean of toads. So many you'd be scared to move for fear of treading on them. I had to have a word with the local running club. On the 'night of the toads' as I call it, they were trampling them to death"
We patrol the length of the road a few times. Nothing. Have the toads all fallen foul of jogging feet and speeding wheels? Thankfully Andy thinks it's nothing that sinister, just a bit too cold and dry for them to be feeling fruity just yet.
Then I spot a single male hopping about in the grass. I pick him up and he makes a sweet chirruping sound more like a bird than an amphibian. Toads get a bad rap and are generally associated with myths about warts and witchcraft. But this little guy is an essential link in the foodchain; the gardener's best friend he eats slugs and snails and in turn he provides otters and hedgehogs with a decent meal. It's true they do have certain magical qualities and have been known to predict earthquakes. Which makes them significantly smarter than pandas and far more deserving of our attention in my book.
I pop him down and he plops in the pond. Early to the party, I'm hoping he bags himself a choice female. Or two. One thing's for sure. He needs to father as many tadpoles as possible. It's not just joggers and cars these toads have to worry about. The killer fungal disease, Chytrid, has been detected in amphibian populations all around the UK. With numbers in decline by more than 50% over the last decade, Bufo Bufo, Britain's common toad is in serious danger of needing a new name.
This spring the Zoological Society of London in association with ARG are assembling a voluntary Toad Task Force to swab 6000 amphibians across the UK for the deadly Chytrid. Amphibian research is woefully under funded compared to that of the so-called cute furry animals. To support this important work and help save Britain's brilliant toads donate a couple of quid here - they're so much more deserving than Pandas and better for your garden.
To join a local toad patrol visit Froglife here.