Frog Spring (1)
Thirty. Or thereabouts. I tried counting heads several times, but every few seconds the surface would froth with legs. A new frog-constellation would appear and need another go at counting. A whole quarter of the pond was a soup of spawn, and my ears were full of the animals’ bassline croaks as I lay full length on the grass.
There have been more frogs in our pond this year than I have ever seen before. There’s also more spawn – will there be room and food enough for all the tadpoles? A few weeks ago I was wondering if the local amphibians would have survived the floods, and now they’re here in hordes.
Perhaps the floods have caused their surge in our garden – other ponds might have been damaged. Or perhaps it’s a symptom of “grey gardens”, where concrete replaces green. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more gardens are going this way, eroding urban refuges for wildlife and, of course, increasing the effects of floods.
I’ve done my best to “re-green” our garden, much of which was a wilderness of gravel a few years ago, so it feels like a particular vindication when interesting species appear in it. Frogs and toads are among my favourites (and our daughter’s, especially since we negotiated down her pet demands from “a zebra” to the pond frogs). There are seven native species of amphibian in the UK, and three live in south Oxford – common newt, common frog and common toad. This list doesn’t sound spectacular, but its adjectives have a gloomy resonance. The word “common” in a species name often has a meaning similar to a prime minister’s expression of “full support” for a beleaguered cabinet member – the end of the road is near.
At present, all three south Oxford species are actually common, although toad numbers are falling in the UK. Globally, amphibian species are declining or disappearing, largely for the usual reasons – habitat loss, pollution, changes in climate, predation or competition from introduced species – but also because of fungal diseases, to which they are highly susceptible because of their extremely permeable skins. These diseases can be inadvertently spread by human handling – something that chimes with the warning I was given as child against handling frogs. “They feel like they are burning” always runs through my head when I see someone with a frog in their hands. I doubt that’s literally true, but it means I don’t tend to touch them.
Common toads may be the species most at risk here, but on spring and summer evenings a few years ago it was hard to believe that any sort of shadow hung over them. As twilight began each April, the pavements and cycle tracks between where we lived then and our nearest park and lake would swarm with toads. A walker as the streetlights were coming on would have to steer between the knobbled bodies straining up onto the kerb from the road, and those hunched up by the garden walls. Some would be trying to haul themselves up the bricks. Some, more massive than the rest, would turn out to be mating pairs, the male clasped on the larger female’s back as she lurched awkwardly along. My memories of these evenings feature webbed forelimbs reaching searchingly out while the rest of the body was still – a peculiar sight, as though different parts of the animal were subject to different wills.
Seeing these mass movements, I could well appreciate the sense of the uncanny that used to hang around toads. The Cheapside Hoard exhibition in the Museum of London contains examples of the fossilised teeth of the ancient fish Lepidoptes, which once were considered “toadstones” – the jewels toads carried in their heads, presumably magical compensation for the ugliness of their bodies. I especially liked the mention of the aristocrat who sat up until dawn with a toad placed on a crimson carpet, waiting for it to vomit up its stone. I doubt the toad’s expression changed much all night.
The really uncanny thing about them is their ability to come back “home” as the breeding season starts. By “home” I mean their spawning ponds. The lake by Hinksey Park is “home” for many of them, but there was once a pond in a back garden not far away, and many toads would push through the dilapidated fence along the road to get there. Then the pond was filled in, the fence repaired, and toads would press against it, unable to satisfy their homing urge. Hopefully most subsequently made their way to the lake.
Slightly further on, where a cycle path runs between the lake and the backs of houses, the cavalcades of toads would be interspersed with newts, whose belly-down, wiggle-wiggle walk was easily missed because they were so small. Once seen, it was impossible not to stop and look for more of them. As vulnerable to bikes as the toads on the road are to cars, the newts always seemed to travel alone, making slow work of the trip between hedge and the grass on the lake side. Unlike the toads there were few enough of them for them to be counted easily. The hundred metres or so of cycle path would often take me ten minutes as I watched them, orange lit in the street lights.
Before and after the 2007 floods the newts began appearing around the house we lived in then. The garden backed onto a stream, but I doubt they bred in there. Perhaps it was the unusual conditions of that summer. Every time I moved something in the garden I would find a newt, which reluctantly crawled away. After the floods, I found them sheltering in the sandbags round our doors. Once, I found one in the bathroom. It must have slipped in when the door was open, and headed for the dampest spot. It’s illegal to handle newts without a licence, so I had to wait until it crawled onto a trowel and gingerly carry it outside.
Frogs were only occasional creatures then, but now in our garden they’re ever present. Even in the depths of winter any disturbance in the pond sets off a wriggling of legs in the folds of the rubber lining. Turning over a rock might reveal a small shape that sits unmoving, hibernation cold despite its open eyes.
Through spring and summer those eyes break the water surface as the adults float. Their lenses’ apparent brush of dusty gold, both around and within, is one of the garden’s most striking colours, even when the flowers are out. (I’m not the only person to have noticed this about amphibians – see George Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”.) The faint ripples of the surface spreading out from under their chins give me a sense of the circles around each frog travelling infinitely, if it weren’t for the weed, the lilies, the clear-cut pond edge.
After the mating weeks there’s a pause while the adults bask, stretching out their striped legs in the dark water. In the mass of jelly the dots become lines, heads and tails differentiating themselves within each of the many spheres. I say a pause, but in fact magpies, crows and blackbirds peck down through the grille of our pond cover (which does keep cats away from the adults) and take their toll. Then suddenly there are tadpoles.