The Common Toad used to be really common in SE23 twenty or thirty years ago. But, as so often, loss of habitat has meant a serious decline. In London as a whole, 90% of natural ponds have disappeared and this is disastrous for toads who aren’t good at colonising new areas.
Toads aren’t impressed with your average garden pond, so beloved of frogs and newts. A toad is looking for something altogether bigger and deeper. This is where the Devonshire Road Nature Reserve has been so successful. About 7 years ago, they created a large, deep pond and acquired toad spawn from Catford. Now, there is a very healthy toad colony there, which returns every March to breed.
Once established in a pond they like, toads usually do well. There aren’t many creatures that’ll attempt to eat even toad tadpoles. They’re very poisonous! Unlike frogs, toads spend most of their lives on land; they only use the water for breeding. And they have excellent homing skills, always returning to the pond in which they were born. So on warm, damp nights in Spring, Forest Hill toads will make the long, dangerous journey back to their breeding pond on Devonshire Road. Many won’t make it.
So how do you tell the difference between a toad and a frog? The most obvious difference is their skin. Frogs have moist, smooth skin. Toads have drier, bumpier skin, often brownish. Frog spawn forms large clumps, whereas toad spawn forms long ropes.
George Orwell was fascinated by the Common Toad and in 1946 wrote an essay in which he said watching them return to their breeding ponds was one of the things he loved best about spring. He felt reassured by the fact that you could still enjoy this sight in London even though "atom bombs are piling up in the factories and the police are prowling through the cities." So if you’d like to see the creatures that inspired Orwell, do visit the Devonshire Road Nature reserve at its next open day on 25th March or with the Forest Hill Society on 15th April. They may not fire up your political fervour but, if you’re lucky, they’ll give you a true sense of Springtime.