The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is a particular favourite of Roo’s. Living near the section of rural Thames that inspired the book and exploring its many footpaths and familiar wildlife daily, it was always going to hit close to home for our mini-nature-enthusiast-come-book-worm. Roo also loves a particularly beautiful tableaux portraying scenes from the book in Henley-on-Thames’ family-friendly River and Rowing Museum and enjoys examining Mr. Toad’s motorcar and taking mock fright at Badger’s slightly ominous snoring. Upstairs there is an excellent exhibition for older readers on Grahame himself.
Roo’s absolute favourite character in The Wind in the Willows is the rambunctious Mr. Toad. Based around Grahame’s own son, he is ever the lovable, self-centred rogue with a thirst for
trouble adventure. Just outside Henley lies the grand estate of Fawley Court – reputedly one of several local estates credited with helping to inspire the fictional grand residence of Mr. Toad. We often visit next-door garden centre Toad Hall, presumably named for its proximity to Fawley Court. Yet as I discovered this spring, there may be more to its amphibious name than first assumed. For just over a mile down the road lies one of the largest annual toad migratory road crossing points in the country. Just happy coincidence? Angelina Jones, coordinator of Henley-on-Thames’ Toad Patrol, doesn’t think so.
I first met Angelina on a cool, dry evening in late March. It wasn’t the most conventional of introductions. It’s not every day after all that you don your most luminescent of yellow jackets, grab a head-torch and a couple of buckets and head off to some unlit woods on the side of a busy road to meet someone new.
What was I doing there? Well ever since we built our tiny garden pond last year I’ve been researching how we can help out our UK amphibians. A lot of this includes helping to make any garden space you have a frog, newt and toad friendly environment. A pond or water feature of some kind, no matter how modest, is a great start but things like making sure you have some wilder areas of vegetation and woodpiles, cutting out the use of slug pellets and making your garden insect-friendly are also helpful.
Beyond the garden I came across the fascinating concept of Toad Patrol. Toads, like frogs, spend much of the year on land and often at some distance from the ponds and waterways where they breed. Unlike frogs, their warty skinned cousins are incredibly particular about where they spawn, often travelling several kilometres in late winter and early spring to return to the exact same water feature that they themselves first emerged from in their adult post-metamorphosis state. So strong is the migratory impulse for these toads that not even the development of large roads or railways will stop them. As a result, every spring there are thousands of casualties as the annual toad migration gets under-way. Is it any wonder that the numbers of Common Toads in the UK are thought to be in rapid decline?
Toad Patrol exists to reduce these casualties. Run by wildlife enthusiasts all over the country, local volunteers identify risk areas and set up some form of toad protection during the migratory season. This varies from raising awareness locally and petitioning the council for warning signs on roads (bet you always wondered why those toad signs were there) to physically removing toads from roadsides.
The Henley Toad Patrol is at the latter extreme. They have been established for decades and were one of the first groups in the country to trial a toad road tunnel (verdict? buckets are best). They even appeared on BBC Springwatch in 2013 (see the excellent clip below) and most recently featured in a tabloid article on George Clooney that is, putting it mildly, rather liberal with the truth (Clooney lives over 7 miles away from from the toad crossing point referenced in case you read it). Toads don’t get much more glamorous than that!
Each spring, as soon as damp evenings at over 5ºC start to kick in, the side of the A4155 is monitored for the first signs that the toad migration is under-way. Barriers are erected along the busiest crossing point: a section of private woodland close to Henley Business School and the hopping-off point for the toads’ final destination of the large ponds in the grounds opposite. Each night in peak migratory season, volunteers descend on the woods as dusk falls, patrolling the barrier with their buckets and torches looking for lusty travellers on one side and returning toads on the other. Toads whose journeys have been halted by the barrier are scooped up along with any newts or frogs that might also be there. They are then escorted safely over the main road and down to the lake edge, where they are deposited gently in the long vegetation surrounding the ponds.
‘Don’t the toads just go round the barrier?’ I asked Angelina as she took me through the patrol’s routine. Some do cross at either end of the barrier but the vast majority arrive and are content to stay and wait until the next evening’s rapid-bucket pond-link service arrives. This intervention, along with that of all of the other dedicated toad patrols across the country, is undoubtedly doing a lot to positively counteract the diminishing numbers of the often-overlooked little toad. Over just this season alone the Henley Toad Patrol carried 4924 toad, 412 frogs and 64 common newts safely to their spawning ponds and assisted over 800 toads back across the barrier on their return journey.
The evening when I joined Henley Toad Patrol was late in the season. The barrier was due down that weekend. Amphibian crossings had dwindled to a mere handful on recent nights. As luck would have it, not a single toad was to be found that evening but had I arrived a couple of weeks earlier I would have been kept incredibly busy with up to 1000 toads being helped each night.
The Toad Patrol welcomes all volunteers – everyone from the keen wildlife conservationist to the curious, once-a-season helper who just wants to experience first hand one of the most impressive and under-reported spectacles of British wildlife. Unfortunately it’s not something young children can get involved in. The very fact that the patrols run alongside fast roads at dusk is enough of a reason to leave little ones at home; the coincidence of timing with dinner and bedtime routines another. Once kids hit their tweens and teens though, things are different.
Next season I hope to get involved earlier. Toad Patrol is a fantastic concept and in need of as much support as it can get. Our British toads may not be the most beautiful to look at but they are fascinating little creatures. Their history goes back a long way, intertwined tightly with British folklore. Just like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, these under-represented staples of British wildlife seem to have an uncanny fascination with motor cars, although in the case of our non-literary little friends, this is a human imposed danger entirely not of their own making.
For now at least I get to explain to Roo the background story to the toad road signs along the Henley to Marlow A4155 and I will never look at Toad Hall Garden Centre in quite the same light. Perhaps its name is more to do with the phenomenal wildlife migration that takes place just next door every year than associations with a famous children’s novel. Perhaps the toad crossing here was in evidence when Grahame was in the area? This is yet another secret that the toads seem set to keep to themselves.
If you would like to get involved with your local Toad Patrol group then do visit the Frog Life Toad Crossings web-page where you can do a postcode search to find your local group. For those in the Henley-Marlow area, Angelina Jones is keen to hear from volunteers now so that they can be added to the mailing list for the start of next year’s season.