Cold blood and warm days

Tiffany Daneff / 15 April 2015

Warm weather brings out the reptiles and amphibians at the Sheep Garden, and an unusual sight awaits Tiffany Daneff at the bottom of the garden.

I was all set to get going in the vegetable plot yesterday. The beds need preparing and the netting erected before any seeds or plants go in but when I opened the barn door to collect my tools what should I find slowly making its way across the dusty brick floor but a handsome crested newt all soot black back and mandarin orange belly.  

We garden on a hillside that slopes south towards a stream that runs through a culvert at the bottom of the garden, which makes us very popular with amphibians, and indeed reptiles, who wander through our house and garden.

With all this spring sun life has been hotting up. We spotted a grass snake on Easter day, nosing its way out of a shady hole in the stones at the base of the garden wall. That was on our way down to examine the frogspawn in the stream. I had looked last year but found none. This year there are plenty of jellied heaps, the cells just beginning to divide.  

A couple of nights ago, as we set up the back steps to take the dog for its final evening walk, I nearly missed stepping on a nice fat toad. Ten minutes later we returned to find it perched in the opening of a pair of walking boots. I would have photographed it to show you, but the wretched phone was out of juice. As always.  

But worry not, yesterday provided the most exciting discovery of all.

In the sunny shallows of a nearby pond the water appeared to be bubbling. We walked closer and spied the bright eyes and smiling greeny yellowy face of a toad splashing about in the weeds floating at the surface. Then we spotted another, and another and, just a couple of feet away, we discovered a knot of toads.

Now I had never heard of such a thing – much less seen one - until I read Cold Blood, a novel, described on its cover as “Adventures with reptiles and amphibians” by Richard Kerridge (Chatto & Windus, £16.99).  This came out last year and is a poignant marriage of autobiography and animals. Kerridge teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University (a course definitely worth attending to judge by this book). To cut a long story short he includes, in his chapter on the Common Toad, a description of the toad’s extraordinary mating ritual.

Half a dozen males will converge, says Kerridge, on a single female. In their desperation they fight for supremacy, pushing and shoving each other out of the way while clinging tightly to the female. More toads arrive and their combined weight tips over the ball of toads. We had arrived to discover – it was hard to count – perhaps six or eight males in the ball and another ten or so paddling frenziedly through the water. The female was buried under their shining bodies, struggling for air. Perhaps she would drown. Often, says Kerridge, she does.

The air was full of soft croaking as the males kicked and tried to prise each other off. The glistening ball of toads spun in the water and all about it, gathered in the floating weeds, were long strings of night-black spawn. (Toad spawn consists of long strings; frog spawn of clumps – that’s how you tell the difference.)

And, as luck would have it, I had my camera and it had juice. So you can see this miracle for yourself in the video below. Read wildlife writer David Chapman on the mating habits of toads for more information.

Read Martyn Cox's guide to making a wildlife pond to attract amphibians to your own garden.

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