An update from one of our toad patrols

Every year, CPARG helps to organise and coordinate toad patrols, to aid in the safe transport of common toads (Bufo bufo) to their breeding ponds, across busy roads. The movement of the toads is primarily undertaken at night, which means that volunteers need to be out and about in the evenings when toads are moving, in order to prevent them from becoming casualties. Unfortunately, toads have declined massively over the past couple of decades, so we’re doing everything we can to help safeguard the populations that we have left. This year, we had over 20 volunteers signed up to help with a toad crossing in the centre of Cambridge. Given the success of the patrol despite the difficulties caused by COVID and the cold spring we’ve had, we asked the patrol coordinator Suzanne Little to put into words what it’s like to be a toad patroller and how she first got into it. Below is Suzanne’s story.

Common toads in a bucker (Photo credit: Suzanne Little).

I heard about toad patrol in 2018 on social media, a call went out asking for help, they needed help, ….I like saving creatures, ….no contest. I asked Mick (my partner) if he fancied a month or two walking the streets with a bucket and torch, in the dark, wearing a viz jacket, …..why not he said ….sounds like a great idea. It’s 2021 and we are still walking the streets, but this time we have more volunteers, I requested help through notices on lampposts, social media and word of mouth. We have a ‘WhatsApp group’ in which we organise who is patrolling and who is having time off, and just sharing toad type things, and it’s working really well. But I will say, out of 20 odd volunteers we have really only the dedicated reliable handful who actually come out and help, and I take my hat off to them. Toads are declining every season, they are so important to our ecosystem, they need help, we need to educate people.

A female common toad in a bucker (Photo credit: Suzanne Little).

The real danger for the toads of course, are the cars, bikes, scooters, joggers and even the pedestrians, apart from their natural predators. So I contacted the council in 2019, and spoke to a lovely lady Victoria who said “no problem” to my request for two metal toad signs. Our next project is a banner of sorts to put in the hedge at the junction saying “Caution toad patrol in progress” and with our great volunteers and their different talents I’m sure we will get one.

Toads, … what can I say, these gentle unassuming little critters are magic, their stubbornness and determination to get to their breeding pond is amazing. I feel, because we have taken over basically the planet with our needs and wants and we’ve pushed aside anything else that lives on this beautiful earth, we have a moral obligation to do our bit to help our fellow creatures to survive. Every toad that I place in my bucket brings me joy, and the smiles on the faces of my fellow volunteers says it all. Toads may not be cute and fluffy, but to me, they are just amazing.

A pair of toads in a bucket, after being saved from the road along with a potential interloper (Photo credit: Jamie Burns)

I think that says it all, thanks again to Suzanne and all of our wonderful volunteers for all of their hard work. It is always such a challenge to know when the toads are going to be making the crossing, especially when the weather isn’t on your side. In previous years, prolonged dry and chilly spells have either delayed the start of the patrol season or extended it. It’s important to note that anyone can assist with toad patrols, if you’d like to get involved, please contact us through our website.

Take part in the PondNet Spawn Count 2021

Every year when the frogs return to their ponds to breed, the Freshwater Habitat’s Trust (formerly Pond Conservation) launches its PondNet Spawn Count. The aim of this citizen science project is to collect data on when members of the public first spot frog or toad spawn in their garden or park ponds. I’m sure a lot of us think of amphibians when we think of spring, I know I certainly do! Frogs and toads breed at different times of year across the country, with those in the south-west tending to breed before populations in the north. It’s important to help track these phenological shifts as climate change disrupts our weather patterns and blurs the lines between the seasons. At the moment, it is not known what these challenges mean for our amphibian populations in the long run and this is where you can help. If whilst tending to your garden or whilst walking your dog you spot some spawn, please record it here.

Common frogs surrounded by a mass of frog spawn at a pond in Cambridge

You don’t have to be an amphibian expert to be able to identify which species the spawn comes from, as there are handy guides on the Freshwater Habitat’s Trust website for you to use. There is also information on how to find a grid reference in case this is not your forte either. The PondNet Spawn Count is designed to be accessible to everyone, so that we can maximise the amount of data collected throughout the UK and Ireland. That data is also shared with ARG UK (our umbrella organisation) which means that relevant records will eventually make their way to us as well. This is particularly important given that common toads have declines nearly 70% in the past 30 years, we need to identify and protect the stronghold populations before it is too late.

When you do find spawn, don’t forget to go back and visit multiple times. In our experience, some frogs tend to lay a little earlier than other and then the rest of that population will lay. This means that at a large pond, you may first find a handful of clumps but if you come back in a couple of days’ time, this could be hundreds. When it comes to which spawn is which, frogs lay spawn in clumps, which will be familiar to many. Toads however lay their spawn in strands and tend to hide it well along aquatic vegetation, so it may not always be visible. Don’t worry if they outfox you and you notice toad tadpoles without first finding any spawn, this has happened to us on a number of occasions.

The Cherry Pond at Wandlebury Country Park is an example of a mature pond that supports breeding amphibians. Photo credit: Mario Shimbov.

It’s important to know where our amphibians are breeding, so that we can help protect and monitor those habitats. With your help, we can do just that! Don’t forget that if you see any other amphibians or reptiles that you can record them on the Record Pool.

Falling Through the Cracks: conserving amphibians and reptiles in burial grounds

In many urban locations churchyards and burial grounds represent some of the few remaining peaceful havens for wildlife and people in an increasingly busy world. Even in the countryside, much of our biodiversity has been lost to intensive agriculture and infrastructure development. Often founded on ancient sites, our sacred places may then also provide a welcome respite for much of our native wildlife including amphibians and reptiles. Living in the damp corners that so often characterise old churchyards we often have reports of common frogs and toads, newts, slow-worms, common lizards, grass snakes, and in some exceptionally special places even our most vulnerable native snake, the adder.

One of the ponds at Cambridge City Crematorium that we’ve restored in recent times, these are full of amphibians such as great crested newts. Note the hibernaculum in the background.

However, many reports are anecdotal, and whilst many burial grounds have a ‘wild area’ which is often in the older and harder to maintain part of the site. This is often simply left and little done to map the wildlife using it or to target habitat improvement for specific species.

ARG UK (Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK) working in partnership with the Caring for God’s Acre ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds’ has developed a project focusing on our forgotten creatures, those that inhabit the damp corners and provide a safety net for those falling through the cracks and crevices. The project has the three main aims of finding out more about amphibians and reptiles in churchyards and other burial grounds, informing and enthusing people managing and using the areas about these amazing creatures and advising site managers on ways of tweaking the management to improve the area for wildlife including herps.

One of the unrestored ponds that is also a haven for life

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Amphibian and Reptile Group (CPARG) is one of 9 county based volunteer amphibian and reptile groups (ARGs) already signed up to the project. At this time of uncertainty when we don’t know how far we will be allowed to travel and who we can work with it gives us a chance to  obtain useful records and raise the profile of amphibians and reptiles in our local areas. It builds on work we have been doing with the estates team at Cambridge City Crematorium. We have built a hibernaculum and helped cleared out overgrown ponds. Regular monitoring shows the great crested and smooth newts are benefitting.

We hope to involve members of church   congregations or teams looking after other burial grounds in the project so more people become interested in and knowledgeable about amphibians and reptiles and wildlife in general.

If you would like to take part, please contact Terry Moore (terry@moorehse.co.uk) for more information.

An annual midwife toad update

Since 2015, CPARG has been involved with the monitoring of midwife toads (Alytes obstetricans) in Cambridge. For those of you who are not aware, midwife toads are a small non-native species and the population in question can be found in the back gardens of a row of terraced houses in the city centre. Through this ongoing project, we have been able to train a small number of volunteers on the techniques required to swab amphibians for diseases, as well as designing new protocols to detect and locate midwife toads. In 2017, we even collected some DNA from the population to determine where they came from. This quickly evolved into a national project, where members of CPARG have been involved in surveys across the country. These have been conducted in order to determine the presence of midwife toads and collect DNA for provenance analysis.

One of the Cambridge midwife toads being swabbed by Mark Goodman. Photo credit: Mario Shimbov

In the 2016 season, we started swabbing the toads for the amphibian chytrid fungus which has been implemented in the decline of amphibians globally, and the extinction of around 100 species. The effects of chytridiomycosis (the disease caused by infection by the fungus), are currently not fully understood in British amphibians but as a non-native species, midwife toads are a potential vector. This, however, depends on when the population was introduced, which is still something we are trying to establish. Midwife toads themselves are declining throughout their native range across north-west Europe and are highly susceptible to chytridiomycosis. They are therefore the perfect model species to swab for chytrid as if it is present in the multi-species amphibian population, then it is likely present in the midwife toads.

One of the Cambridge midwife toads in situ on a paving slab. Photo credit: Mario Shimbov

These surveys continued in 2019 although the number of surveys we were able to conduct was impacted by the lockdown and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This means that unfortunately, we weren’t able to collect as many samples as we hoped but we still managed some. This is a success in our eyes given the circumstances and we hope that next year we’re able to bounce back given the enthusiasm of the local residents we’ve been working with. Throughout the surveys this year, we also observed some unusual behaviour such as tadpoles being present in flowerpot saucers. The key conditions affecting metamorphosis (in A. obstetricans) are determined by diet, aggregation/crowding, water temperature and physical stress such as droughts – which in itself plays a role in their tadpole development. During this stage, they get their cue to metamorphose from their thyroid hormones which move through their tissues, delivering orders to mobilise ranks of cells to unfold.

A midwife toad in a plastic container prior to being weighed. Photo credit: Mario Shimbov

These observations can suggest that having suitable places where rainwater collects could be beneficial to wildlife, even when only inches deep. Overwintering tadpoles gain advantage as this allows them to continue growing. Thus, after completing their metamorphosis in the upcoming spring successfully, they will have a higher survival rate capable of escaping predators and competing for territories and mates. However, it is important to note that residents should leave garden ponds and/or other alternative options filled-in with water so any polliwogs staying in water have better chances to continue their daily business once temperatures are suitable in the new season.   

All of this aids in our ongoing research to establish how big the population is and how it is able to persist in Cambridge. If you’d like to get involved with the surveys in 2021, please do get in touch as we are currently looking for some new members to join the team. Thanks to Mario Shimbov and Mark Goodman for their effort in surveying the midwife toads this summer, maybe you’ll be able to join them next year! Thanks also to the residents of Cambridge with whom allow us access to their gardens so that we can carry out this important research.

CPARG aids in national toad research

You may remember reading back in 2016 that research published then revealed that the common toad (Bufo bufo), had declined by 68% in the preceding 30 years. This is a dramatic decline for any species and at the time, it was the covered by all of the major news outlets. You can find the post we published at the time here, discussing what the news meant for Cambridgeshire’s toads and ways we can all help to reverse the decline. You’ll be happy to know that since this news was announced, a number of people and organisations have been looking into this decline in more detail to tease apart all of the different effects on toad populations.

A large female common toad just prior to being swabbed

Back in February (when toads undertake their annual migration back to breeding ponds), CPARG swabbed some toads to collect genetic samples. We used the minimally invasive method of a buccal swab, the same method used for gathering DNA samples in our ongoing midwife toad project and what you would have seen on TV (think CSI). This wasn’t just for the fun of it, although it was quite fun. CPARG were collecting samples to aid in the national research project to investigate the genetic variability between different toad populations to see if this could help us better understand the declines we’ve seen since the 1980s.

Mark Goodman and Steven Allain collect toad samples from a site in Cambridge

Collecting a buccal swab from a toad isn’t easy, particularly when they don’t cooperate. However, CPARG Chairman Steven Allain has the skills needed to complete this task thanks again to the ongoing midwife toad project. After collecting toads from the perils of a residential area, a mix of male and female toads were swabbed before being released at the breeding pond nearby. These samples make up just a small portion of those being collected by various organisations and citizen scientists for PhD student Rémi Martin, who is currently undertaking this vital research at the University of Wolverhampton. As well as being swabbed, the toads were also weighed and measured as well as being sexed to aid with Rémi’s ongoing research.

One of the toads shortly after being released

We’re looking forward to seeing what the results of this research are and we’ll share them with you, when we can. Until then please continue to record any amphibians and reptiles you see via the Record Pool, and fingers crossed we’ll be able to resume our normal activities come the spring. Thanks to Mario Shimbov for taking the photographs used in this blog but also for assisting in the collection of the samples.

Stanley Road now has toad signs!

The eagle eyed among you will have noticed a tweet CPARG was tagged in a short while ago by Cambridge City Council regarding some new toad signs that has been installed. The signs themselves are along Stanley Road – the location of one of Cambridge’s key common toad (Bufo bufo) populations. For those not aware, common toads have declined by almost 70% across the UK in the past 30 years. However a stronghold in the city centre has its perils and ones of these is cars – now the signs are in place we hope that toad mortality decreases. The area is monitored by members of CPARG and the local community to ensure that toads reach their breeding pond successfully without finding themselves under the wheels of a passing car.

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One of the toad signs in place

The signs have been a long time coming and we need to thank Suzanne Little, a local resident for the campaigning and hard work to get the signs fitted. A few years ago when CPARG first became involved with the monitoring of the toads, we partnered with Transition Cambridge with the aim to fundraise the money needed to install the posts and signs. After a site visit with workmen from the council, the bill was estimated at £400. Unfortunately the fundraiser didn’t work and we were left scratching our heads. Thankfully the signs are now in place and it seems the council has managed to cut costs but utilising pre-existing posts – one of the biggest costs under our quote was the installation of new posts for the signs. Either way, we’re sure they will be beneficial for the toads in the area helping to raise awareness of their presence.

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A view of things from a toad’s point of view

If you’d like to get involved with the toad patrols in the area and help toads reach their spawning pond, please do get in touch with our Toads on Roads Officer Mark Goodman.

All photos © Mario Shimbov

Celebrating a new wetland habitat at Stourbridge Common, Cambridge

Ahead of World Wetland Day on Sunday 2nd February, CPARG members, a big group of local volunteers supported by Cambridge City Council officers and councillors joined forces to carry out our first habitat restoration project for 2020 on Sunday 26th January.

This new wetland area is brilliant asset to the whole of Cambridge. Situated along the treeline to the right of the Garlic Row entrance to Stourbridge Common, easily accessible, this space would provide Cambridge’s citizens another green pocket to encounter local wildlife.

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Over twenty people of all ages came together to conduct a major habitat restoration project. The work party involved different techniques such as tree coppicing and clearing overgrown areas where the wood was used to build hibernacula. The team also worked to create more complex (habitat enrichment) structures by profiling and refining the edges of the waterbodies. Along all of this, litter picking and tidying up within the woodland area was also carried out.

The purpose of this whole exercise was to help wildlife, including amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and insects that can all benefit from these improvements. CPARG sees this as an important step in protecting and promoting species abundance within Cambridge and tackling the current biodiversity emergency.

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CPARG will keep a eye on and monitor how the wetland habitat develops as it is a key part in enhancing biodiversity across the city and will hopefully encourage the local community to get involved in outdoor related activities and learn more about the nature on their doorstep.

By Mario Shimbov

Work at Wandlebury starts on the Dew Pond

Many CPARG members and supporters will know that we have a very healthy working relationship with Cambridge Past, Present and Future who manage Wandlebury Country Park. This involves the monitoring of the site’s amphibians as well as an ongoing project to evaluate the slow worm population at Wandlebury. If you’re a CPARG member, you’re very welcome to get involved with both of these projects – as well as many others that will soon be commencing come the spring.

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The Dew Pond before our work party started

On the cold morning of November 9th, four avid CPARG members arrived at Wandlebury to start work on the Dew Pond (photographed above). We were expecting a slightly larger turn out but I suspect that the weather forecast put as few people off. Despite this, the day was quite warm for November and given that were all active the layers soon came off! A previous work party a couple of weeks before (completed by Cambridge PPF volunteers) had removed the decking to one corner and the fence around the pond. Our job was to remove the old pond liner and all of it’s contents ready for contractors to come in and reprofile the pond before relining it. This was no easy task due to the presence of invasive species such as New Zealand Pigmyweed (Crassula helmsii) which meant that extra care needed to be taken.

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Working as a team to get the job done!

The pond was slowly pulled apart piece by piece, with a full destructive search taking place to ensure that no wildlife (such as amphibians) was harmed as the pond was slowly transformed. Thankfully during the destructive search, no reptiles or amphibians were found. The Dew Pond has been empty for some time, although it has been a catchment for leaves and other organic debris meaning that soil had built up in some areas. This made our lives slightly more difficult but after a quick change in technique, we were back on track. Unfortunately we weren’t able to complete all of the work but we got the majority of it done (over 80%) with all of the waste being dumped at the outside of the pond ready for the diggers to collect at a later date. You can see just how much of a transformation took place by looking at the photo below.

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After all of our hard work

If you’d told me that four guys had managed to transform the Dew Pond in a few hours, I probably wouldn’t believe you – but we did it! The Dew Pond is currently undergoing it’s transformation, a process we helped start in 2015. We can’t wait to see how the pond develops over the coming years and we hope that the amphibians of Wandlebury both find it and use it to breed in.

Once work is complete, we’ll be back to monitor the pond to make sure that succession is successful. There may be a work party or two between now and then to plant up the new pond or to cut down brambles in the areas where the slow worms can be found but if you want to know more, keep an eye out on our website!

Winter work party at Barnwell East LNR

On the 27th October, CPARG had it’s first work party of the 2019/2020 winter period. Our efforts were focused at Barnwell East Local Nature Reserve, just off on Barnwell Road. The site is one that has been the subject of monitoring by CPARG for a few years now, sustaining a healthy population of common toads, common frogs and smooth newts. The reserve also hosts a range of habitats for other species as well but our efforts were trained on the pond. We completed some work on the pond back in 2017, since then the willows and other trees/vegetation surrounding the pond or growing in the pond have gone wild. As you can probably guess, the purpose of this work party was to help open the pond back up a bit ready for when the amphibians return in the spring.

Some of the volunteers getting stuck in helping to remove overgrown patches of reed mace

The pond has been monitored since 2015 and is the location of CPARG’s first confirmed breeding toad population (with the discovery of spawn) within Cambridge. Since then other populations have been found. One of the issues is that toad spawn is less conspicuous than that of frogs. It is laid in amongst the aquatic vegetation and forms a string rather than a clump. By removing some of the reed mace, not only are we making the site easier to survey but also providing more potential sites for toads to lay their eggs. It’s a win-win situation for us all and hopefully the toads will be back in force in the spring!

CPARG’s Toads on Roads Officer, Mark Goodman, cuts down some willow in order to provide more light to the pond

As well the vegetation growing within the pond, we also worked to remove some of that growing around the pond. The area is full of willows that grow fast and unfortunately block out the sun’s light reaching the pond. This can lead to a number of problems including the death of the submergent vegetation within the pond that can then cause a run-away reaction of eutrophication which isn’t good news for amphibians. Thankfully we were able to remove a significant amount of willow growth and rake some of the leaves out of the bottom of the pond. We may need to return in the near future to continue the work but for now, things are looking bright. All of the material removed was used to help build hibernacula around the pond for amphibians and the other inhabitants of the reserve.

Mark showing us his handiwork with one of the hibernacula constructed using cut-down willow and material removed from the pond

SAVE THE FROGS! – Translating Science into Action

Recently Froglife organised a free afternoon of talks on amphibian conservation at the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge. The main reason for this was that the Founder of SAVE THE FROGS!, Dr Kerry Kriger was visiting the area and wanted to help spread the word about the great conservation work that the organisation does. Froglife invited CPARG Chairman Steven Allain to give a talk on the work CPARG does within the county. There were also other talks from Froglife and the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) which helped to create a full afternoon of presentations and discussion about the status of amphibians what can be done to save them. Despite all of the doom and gloom in the world, the event was generally quite positive which is always a great way to get new volunteers involved with amphibian conservation.

CPARG Chairman Steven Allain introduces his talk

Steven’s talk was the first of the afternoon, followed by a talk from Laurence Jarvis of Froglife who went into some detail about the efforts and research Froglife is currently undertaking to help save amphibians. Keep your eyes peeled for future updates as it may have a number of positive implications on how we conduct toad patrols and other levels of monitoring. Following this was Helen Meredith giving a talk on the activities and aims of the Amphibian Survival Alliance around the world and how that fits in to amphibian conservation locally. Finally was the main event, Kerry Kriger informed the audience of the amazing work SAVE THE FROGS! does and what is in store for the future.

From left to right: Dr Kerry Kriger (Founder of SAVE THE FROGS!), Steven Allain (CPARG Chairman) and Mark Goodman (CPARG Toads on Roads Officer)

If you were at the event please let us know what you thought and if you’d like to get involved with local amphibian and reptile conservation then please do get in touch!