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