In February and March, toads, newts and frogs are all on the move, travelling from their winter hibernation places towards the ponds on the common. To get there, they have to cross the lane where they are in danger of being squashed by cars. They tend to linger, waiting for a passing female to jump onto, or just preferring the marginally warmer conditions of the roadway. To save them, they have to be moved to the common side of the lane or all the way to one of the ponds.
There is an official toad watch group: a number of volunteers who go out to rescue every evening. I am not part of this, but I find myself a reluctant volunteer because I walk my dog last thing at night and can’t avoid meeting up with amphibians on the move. I don’t like picking them up at all, but neither can I bear to leave them there to take their chances with the traffic. And if I don’t move them, I’ll be the one to find their flattened bodies early in the morning when next I walk the dog.
The toad watch volunteers keep records and dead ones have to be moved off the road so that they don’t get counted twice. Bizarrely, I prefer doing that, picking them up by one delicate, clawed foot, reciting the three homages and throwing the bodies into the undergrowth where at least they will naturally be recycled. What I dislike is picking up the living, getting hold of their little bony bodies, throwing them rapidly into the long grass where I pray they have a soft landing. Sometimes I drop them and they squirm on their backs, their pale underbellies exposed, their little curved mouths tightly shut, until they right themselves and I have to catch them and try again. I wear gloves, not being able to bring myself to pick them up with my bare hands.
The official volunteers, out just after dusk with head torches, high viz clothing and buckets, gather them up and carry them in batches to the ponds. But I can’t cope with a bucket as well as the dog on a lead and just have to chuck them one by one into the grass. I report numbers of each, but sometimes it is difficult to tell which are frogs and which are toads. If they hop, they’re frogs. But both species come in many different shades of brown, gold and green. Toads are supposed to be ‘warty’, and this means that they have a rougher, pebbly skin, whereas the frogs are shiny, gleaming in the torch light. And the frogs seem to be more angular, more powerful swimmers perhaps, built for moving faster through the water, though at this time of year the females have bulging egg-filled bellies which makes them waddle and wait.
Some nights I move around forty: frogs, toads, and often too newts, slim, golden slivers which are easy to miss in the darkness. The newts wriggle at amazing speed, their tiny legs just raising them off the asphalt, their graceful bodies propelling them along. Over the few weeks of the watch, altogether we move nearly four thousand creatures, though I’m not entirely convinced that I’m not moving the same ones, which could so easily have hopped back into my pathway as I return.
It is with some relief that I receive the message that the watch has come to an end. But to some extent it never does for me. On warm summer evenings along the lanes there are always toads, squatting on the asphalt, apparently going nowhere. I ought to move them and yet I just can’t bring myself to pick them up. I nudge them gently with my foot or with my torch. The frogs will leap away, the toads either lumber slowly a step or two, or simply refuse to move at all. Many of them are exquisite in their tininess, this year’s or last year’s hatchlings, some no more than the size of my fingernail, perfectly formed down to their little clawed feet, their tiny, shiny black eyes. I marvel at them. I love them. And yet still I hesitate to pick them up and move them to safety and then suffer agonies of guilt at my own ridiculous weakness.
Often, when I get home, there is a toad or two walking across the gravel on the drive or sitting on the flight of steps that leads up to the front door. ‘Welcome,’ I say to them. ‘You’re safe here.’ And I go in and turn off the lights and leave them to the warm and mothy darkness.