Guest blog – Toad Rage by Paul Sterry

Dr Paul Sterry has an academic background in freshwater biology and is a passionate conservationist. He has been writing about natural history and photographing wildlife for the last 40 years, with an emphasis on the British scene.

Toad Patrol on a busy Hampshire lane. In early spring every year, thousands of toads, frogs and newts migrate from their hibernation sites to breeding grounds. These journeys often involve road crossings and many are killed by unsuspecting motorists. With awareness of this major problem growing, volunteer groups are now a common sight in known hotspots, helping to reduce the casualty numbers by slowing traffic and collecting these animals from the road. Photo: Rob Read – Nature Photographers Ltd

Once upon a time there was quiet country byway in Hampshire called Cufaude Lane. Within living memory its then ramshackle farms hosted breeding populations of Tree Sparrows and traditionally it has always been noted in naturalist circles for its amphibian populations. On summer evenings 40 years ago you could walk its three-mile, elm-lined length and expect to encounter perhaps four or five cars at most. But today Cufaude Lane is no longer the rural idyll it once was: the elms are long gone, and it has the dubious honour of linking the hugely-expanded ‘village’ of Bramley to the north, with the rapidly expanding Basingstoke suburb of Chineham to the south. The result has been a phenomenal increase in the volume of traffic, which peaks at ‘going-home time’ just as Common Toads and other migrating amphibians are crossing the road at dusk in February and March; they are heading from terrestrial feeding grounds and hibernation sites on one side, to breeding ponds on the other. The result is seasonal carnage.

Over the last ten years, thousands of houses have been built in the communities at either end of Cufaude Lane and an existing industrial park has been expanded. And house-building is ongoing on a grand scale at either end of the byway which does not bode well for migrating amphibians. Although a token nod is given to amphibian conservation in the planning process, there is no requirement for developers or planning departments to take into consideration the resulting road-related bloodshed that a development causes away from the development site, or in this case between development sites. Some authorities choose to care, look at the bigger picture and take this into consideration (road closures, toad tunnels etc), others don’t.

The peak killing periods for Common Toads (and other amphibians) on Cufaude Lane are from mid-February to the end of March, and between the hours of 18.00 and 20.00. Three years of nightly vigil in February and March (along the length of the byway) mean that the rescue team knows the worst ‘killing zone’: most crossings and deaths occur along a kilometre-long stretch from roughly SU 64944 57611 to SU 65268 56982 with all amphibians moving from east to west. On a particularly busy March night in 2018 the volunteers ‘saved’ 352 Common Toads along with smaller numbers of Smooth Newts and Common Frogs. Because the length of the killing zone is so extensive and there were only a handful of volunteers (limited partly by safe off-road parking for just four cars) similar numbers of animals were killed that night; rather poignantly they included toad pairs in amplexus. By the time the team packed up there was a pervading and sickening smell of squashed amphibians in the air and the road surface was slick with toad blood. To call Cufaude Lane a rat-run is accurate both literally and figuratively: in addition to the traffic, toad-rescuers routinely see Brown Rats dragging toad casualties off into the undergrowth. And by the following morning the carnage has been cleared by these and other overnight scavengers.

Photo: Rob Read – Nature Photographers Ltd

So far this year, evenings have been mainly dry and generally chilly, and hence amphibian migration has been slow. Plus it has been school half-term week with the result that traffic has been relatively light. Nevertheless, since 16 February (9 nights) the cumulative figures for the hours 18.00-17.30 are as follows: Common Toad – saved 105, killed 35; Common Frog – saved 8, killed 3; Smooth Newt – saved 60, killed 28; cars 902. As soon as we get a run of mild, wet nights then the amphibian numbers will undoubtedly pick up.

So who is doing what to help Cufaude Lane’s Common Toads? Well, Andrew Cleave has gathered together a valiant band of supporters, none of whom are Cufaude Lane residents incidentally. Valiant is an appropriate word to use because saving toads is a risky business, what with dodging cars on a busy, very narrow road. And volunteers are also subjected occasionally to ‘toad rage’ abuse along the lines of ‘who the **** do you think you are, slowing the traffic down just for some ******* toads’. Hampshire & Isle of Wight Amphibian and Reptile Group (HIWARG) have been supportive, as have the charity Froglife (it is listed on their website as ‘Crossing 314 Cufaude Lane’). The Highways Department has loaned a couple of warning triangle signs, depicting the image of a toad but without any wording other than ‘For ¾ mile’; perhaps unsurprisingly, most drivers we have talked to don’t appear to register what is going on. Hampshire County Council has made supportive noises but nothing tangible has materialised.

As an interesting aside, the most recent planning application for a housing estate (350 houses plus school etc) adjacent to the southern end of Cufaude Lane happens to be on land owned by Hampshire County Council (reference 19/00018/OUT on the Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council planning portal). Although vehicles from this proposed development would not access the byway directly, it is hard to imagine that there would not be consequences for wildlife. Increased traffic aside, at the closest point the proposed site abuts the southern boundary of the lane’s amphibian ‘killing zone’. It is less than 2.6 km (as the newt crawls) from one of Hampshire’s best Great Crested sites (at Popley); and indeed Great Crested Newts were actually discovered within spitting distance of the proposed new development (and close to Cufaude Lane) during an environmental survey conducted on behalf of the developers. With the above in mind, it is worth reflecting on the fact that amphibians and their offspring disperse from their breeding ponds after spawning, they don’t just head in one direction.

Over the years, Andrew has made sure the Borough and County councils are aware of the problem of Common Toad mortality on Cufaude Lane. As a result, and presumably in an attempt to help, last autumn a local planning authority biodiversity officer proposed a meeting to discuss the problem: it was suggested that Andrew meet the environmental consultants acting for what subsequently became planning application 19/00018/OUT. Unfortunately, repeated attempts by Andrew to arrange a meeting were greeted by stony silence. The consultants’ reports are now available on the B&DBC planning portal; given their precise remit, it is unsurprising that their toad- and traffic-related ‘mitigation’ recommendations focus on the stretch of road adjacent to the proposed development. Unfortunately, this is not the main killing zone on Cufaude Lane. Had Andrew been consulted, that would have been made clear. There is a danger that suggested ‘mitigation’ for this particular proposed development site will confuse the issue in the eyes of planners and councils and be seen as a solution to all the ‘toad problems’ on Cufaude Lane. It won’t help because it does not relate to where the bulk of the toads and other amphibians actually cross the road.

Tragic though it is at the local level, the plight of Cufaude Lane’s Common Toads and other amphibians is mirrored across the country and highlights the reality of the situation: the woefully inadequate ‘protection’ that this beleaguered group of animals receives. Even the legal protection afforded Great Crested Newts is flawed and loop-holed in many people’s view, but that’s another story. The problem is not a new one of course. Professor Trevor Beebee, one of Britain’s leading amphibian experts, tells me ‘There is increasing evidence that amphibian road deaths are more than an animal welfare issue. Toad populations are declining in many places and it is increasingly clear that road mortality at busy sites is a factor in that.’ And of course Froglife runs a ‘Toads on Roads’ campaign and has published the results of research on this problem, both in the UK and Europe.

Thanks to the support of Mark, we will update the situation on Cufaude Lane on a regular basis. What can you do to help? Write to Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council and Hampshire County Council to help raise awareness of the problem and use this example to highlight the country-wide problems associated with traffic affecting Britain’s amphibians and other wildlife. Demonstrating that you care may just inspire locals to care, and shame authorities into acting for the greater good of wildlife, even in situations where they are under no legal obligation to do so. In the case of Cufuade Lane, the opportunity still remains for authorities and developers to look at the bigger picture and make bold decisions informed by local knowledge. As for the toads themselves, if they had a suggestion I am sure it would be to turn Cufaude Lane into a no-through-road. But, sadly, amphibians don’t get a say in the life and death decisions that affect them.

Dead toads and frogs collected by volunteers at one of Britain’s many toad patrols undertaken at known crossing sites in early spring. Photo: Rob Read – Nature Photographers Ltd

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16 Replies to “Guest blog – Toad Rage by Paul Sterry”

  1. yes, the typical attitude of most selfish humans: "who gives a **** about the rest of nature, as long as we can roar along about our trivial business; how dare you slow me down by a few seconds"
    Well done all of you. The council should put in tunnels etc. Or have a temporary raised surface like they do for the crab migration on those pacific islands.
    Where I live (London) I've seen a frog twice in the garden in five or six years, and never seen a toad. Exterminated from the whole area. Only population I know of is two miles away.

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  2. Paul is, of course, right to highlight this particular issue. Unfortunately there are thousands more similar issues throughout our islands. Indeed, if we were to look at how we could best manage the UK in order that our grandchildren and their grandchildren could continue to live here without severely affecting our lives there would be only one conclusion reached – we can’t continue to go on like this. As individuals we can continue to do as Paul and the toad helpers are doing, but as a group the conservation organisations, although in many aspects are doing a great job of work, are failing to address in a satisfactory manner the bigger picture necessary to achieve a life for UK residents which does not allow the continual degradation of the natural environment. I don’t have the answer for that, either, but we must keep chipping away, or our collective failure to address the really major issues will be so obvious that it is too late for a return of how we would like things to be. I hate to admit my personal failure to help in an effective way, but I, like Paul and his ilk, will keep at it because we may achieve some minor goals, and delay the inevitable group failure as long as possible.

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  3. And all those new houses? People having too many children of course. Our country (and world) in microcosm, but, of the conservation groups, still only Population Matters are prepared to say anything about it.

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    1. The new houses and too many children are important matters for many in the environment movement, but we all have to choose what we wish to devote our time and money towards - a single individual cannot do everything, and neither can any single conservation group. I've chosen fields where my efforts in time and money, can make a difference, I believe, in wildlife crime and invasive species, perhaps not at the top of many people's agenda, but, like Paul and the toad helpers, effective action is possible,even at an individual level. I'd like to do more, but unless things change, I'm not prepared to spend my time in lost or hopeless causes, other than rant a bit from my armchair.

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    2. There can be no doubt that if there were substantially fewer humans on Earth it would greatly alleviate many of the environmental problems we face and, particularly the ongoing attrition of all of the other species we share the planet with. It is easy to point this out but the problem is how do we bring about such a reduction in numbers? In the past countries such as China and India have taken a very heavy-handed approach to population control which is hard to defend and I would argue that any approach to population control must be balanced against the maintenance of appropriate safeguards to human rights and dignity. You might suggest a 'child tax' and this could perhaps be an effective disincentive to large families but a downside to this approach is that it would affect the poor much more than the wealthy. The latter could perhaps afford to pay the tax and, of course, their offspring are likely to be the most resource hungry children of all.
      It is a widely held view that as the level of development and economic security in countries increases the birth rate does tend to fall and promoting better education and economic development is surely the humane way to achieve stabilisation of populations. Even this is something of a double-edged sword though. As the level of economic development rises the birth rate may fall but demand for consumer goods, electricity, meat and so on will tend to rise rapidly thereby maintaining the pressure on the environment. It goes without saying that we in the wealthy west are in no position to deny people in the developing world access to the same consumer goods and life-style that we enjoy.
      Then there is the fact that (assuming we are not proposing to eliminate ourselves as a species altogether) we do need some children to be born. Falling human populations bring their own problems (though not, of course, to toads and other wildlife) so any measures to reduce population levels have to be managed so that they occur gradually and do not go too far too fast.
      From a UK perspective - which is perhaps most relevant since you are linking the predicament of the toads to the demand for new houses in this country - I believe it is the case that recent population growth has been mainly fuelled by immigration. An easy and obvious solution perhaps is to to fling up the barriers and not let people in but that surely just diverts the problem to somewhere else. I don't know about you but I personally find the idea of toads being crushed, or their ponds drained, in France and other countries just as painful as them being crushed in Hampshire. Arguably we do have space for more houses (indeed we have to find it for the people who are already here and need homes) but we need to be a great deal better at locating and planning these developments so as to avoid problems such as the one Paul describes. Basingstoke is part of the S-SE economic hot-spot which is where the market wants more houses and why they are being built there. This, then is an example of the failure of the market to achieve sustainable development and arguably we need more government intervention to address this failure and ensure that jobs and housing are better distributed across the country so that we can more easily accommodate them without destroying so much of the wildlife that stands in the way.
      I stress that I do not disagree with the assertion that there are too many people on the planet but it seems a bit glib to simply say 'too many people' without offering some practical solution to the problem.

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      1. The large family tax system could be based on the income tax you pay such that for an extra child your income tax goes up say 30%, two extra children 60%.
        Just a thought.

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        1. Just here in the UK or do you envisage this somehow being applied across the world including in those countries where population is growing the fastest?

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    3. I have personally witnessed both WWF Scotland and FoE Scotland blatantly sideline the population issue - while crying out that politicians were ignoring the reality of climate change.

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  4. Thank you for your amazing efforts rescuing the toads and for highlighting this issue. On a more positive note, we had a new paper coming out just today showing that road tunnels and fences, combined with some habitat improvements, can lead in time to population increases including for great crested newts and toads. If there is a will there is a way and contrary to what you often hear it’s not even very expensive. But councils need to demand such solutions and make sure they are adequately installed and monitored as part of licensing. Paper is here and open access https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10344-019-1263-9

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  5. What a fantastic guest blog, perfect mixture of passion and insight. Still got my copy of 'Pondwatching' by Paul Street from when I was sixteen..in 1983!!

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  6. The population may be growing fastest in other countries, but most of them have much lower consumption per head than we do. That's why we should reduce our population. And it's the 'tragedy of the commons' - someone has to be first to cut down - just like CO2 production etc.

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    1. Yes, as I said, fewer people would be good for the environment but I am curious to know how you propose that we should achieve that.

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  7. Dr Paul Sterry I remember you from days when you sang in Mrs Price's Summerbrook Choir in Basingstoke! Are you still living locally?

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  8. Paul, great to see you here on Mark's excellent blog. Sad to say, in Kennington where I still live, it's the same sad story. Our local toad crossing at Bagley Wood is also very broad (800m or more), the road dangerous and its traffic ever-increasing, and multiple Green-Belt-devouring residential developments nearby are sure to exacerbate the carnage (but at a deniable distance from the actual houses, of course). The local volunteers defend the last ditch with wonderfully loyalty and dedication - 1120 outbound toads unsquashed so far this year, plus many frogs and some smooth and great crested newts. It'd be nice to exchange notes.

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  9. My hobby is litter clearing. So I have been walking along Cufaude Lane from Sherfield Park to Bramley, armed with a litter pickup stick and Basingstoke Council litter bags. I have been clearing litter from the water filled ditches on Cufaude Lane and also all over the grassy verges so now the Lane is so much cleaner and the ditches more suitable for your amphibians.

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