Country diary: My 40-year love affair with these breeding toads | Amphibians

Dusk on a pleasantly mild spring evening, and the air is filled with the high-pitched chirping of scores of toads, a sound I first heard on this spot more than 40 years ago. I need to be very careful where I tread: they are emerging from under tree roots and decaying leaves, crossing my path as they leave the wood, returning to their ancestral breeding pond.

Next morning, more arrive, clambering over tussocky grass, and even my boot, determined to reach the water: the unstoppable march of the toads, which often ends in tragedy if reaching their goal entails crossing a busy road. Today, the only hazards are my feet and an occasional farm vehicle.

Thomas Pennant, the 18th-century Welsh naturalist, called toads “the most deformed and hideous of all animals”, his opinion likely swayed by their warty, toxic skins, down-in-the-mouth countenance and by centuries of associating them with witchcraft. But holding one, it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the beauty of those amber eyes or moved by their primeval breeding instinct.

Toads in amplexus, with the male gripping his mate.
Toads in amplexus, with the male gripping his mate. Photograph: Phil Gates

I lowered the struggling amphibian back into the grass, then watched as he plopped into the water. Cumbersome crawling gave way to buoyant breaststroke, propelled by powerful kicks of spade-footed hind legs. Then he floated, mid-pond, taking stock of his surroundings, until ripples spreading from a passing female caught his attention. He set off in pursuit: no luck, she batted him away with a powerful kick.

There were plenty more in this pond, many hard to spot on the muddy bottom, others swimming in search of a mate. Some had already paired; large females piggy-backing males that gripped them in amplexus, the mating embrace that only ends when she has wound long strings of eggs around water weeds and he has doused them with his sperm.

In a few days this annual toad orgy will be over. They’ll return to a crepuscular existence, only leaving their hiding places to feed after sunset, seldom seen in daylight except in accidental encounters. It’s reassuring to know that they are still here in such numbers, after all these years.

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