Nature, including many of the everyday creatures that surround us, is entwined in our heritage, folklore and culture. In the case of frogs and toads it’s likely that most children will come across these through the pages and illustrations of story books long before they encounter the real thing.
Think of the humble frog and what springs to mind? That rascally muppet Kermit perhaps, or Jeremy Fisher of Potter legend? Maybe the Frog Prince? Toads are likewise represented, although often regarded as ugly and the more villainous of the pair. Examples would be Baron Silas Greenback that despicable adversary of Danger Mouse, or the evil Toad from Flushed Away. Even Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad in Wind of the Willows is at best a loveable rogue.
Humans tend to categorise our wildlife into good and bad: rabbits are cuddly, rats are disease ridden; sparrow hawks are evil, owls are cute. So it is with frogs and toads. The fact is all have a place and are simply going about their business of trying to survive; none of them has the slightest inkling of, or interest in, the human world.
Although frogs and toads are superficially similar and generally lumped together for the purposes of convenience, they are quite distinct. Frogs tend to be somewhat greyish-green in colour (although this does vary considerably) and have smooth skin. Common frogs, by far the most widespread and likely encountered species, have a distinctive black patch behind their eye, dark stripes on their legs and random dark blotches over their back. When disturbed they will hop away, using their powerful hind legs to propel themselves. Toads have a dull brown, much rougher skin, golden eyes and a blunter nose. They don’t leap like frogs and instead will crawl from place to place. Both feast on insects, worms and other invertebrates. Our garden slug problem was solved when I dug a pond which soon attracted lots of frogs. After rain, the tide of hopping frogs fanning out to find a meal was comical; the whole lawn seemed alive.
Frogs and toads will be very active now, awakening from their winter torpidity and coming forth to breed. Their breeding habits and habitat requirements are quite different. Frogs will readily take to shallow sided garden or country ponds, drains, ditches and other water bodies, even those temporary in nature that dry up in the summer. Toads have much more stringent requirements, only utilising a small number of traditional sites to which they will travel en masse over great distances. This strategy leaves them very vulnerable to new development such as roads and housing which disrupt their journeys and can cause many to meet an untimely end. Here in Norfolk an organisation called Toadwatch helps monitor likely danger spots, moving toads to safety during February and March.
It is regrettable that both frogs and toads are declining within our county. The usual issues of habitat loss, degradation of remaining habitats, encroachment of large scale, insensitive development and pollution being the main culprits. Gone seem to be the days when we could, as children, trudge to any number of local ponds with nets and jam jars there to fish out
dense clusters of tadpoles, or polywiggles if you prefer the good old Norfolk name. We would march home with these wriggling black offspring, put them in a fish tank and, if they and we were fortunate, watch them complete their metamorphism into small froglets. A great education. Although not illegal, such activity is perhaps not wise nowadays, especially because disease can be spread should infected spawn or tadpoles be released into waters from which they didn’t originate. Much better just to watch them in a natural state.
Commons are great places to find frogs and toads. Many of Norfolk's commons have ponds that are relics of the days when clay was needed for building materials and gravel and stones needed for mending tracks. In time, these and natural ponds became essential drinking places for the ponies, sheep, cattle, goats and geese that once frequented many commons. Today, even where livestock may be long gone, the ponds remain and hold significant populations of both frogs and toads.
Here at home I host a bi-annual pond dipping session for the local Beaver Scout group. They love it and in some cases it can be their first encounter with real live aquatic creatures. This year we had fun speculating whether an unfortunately deformed small frog with one hind leg significantly shorter than the other could only swim in circles. One young man had his nose pressed against the tank and said ‘I could watch these for hours’. What greater accolade to the inspirational wonders of wildlife could there be?