Published: 04 April 2013
The Wildlife Diary: March 2013
Andrew McCarthy recounts a recent encounter with a large group of amphibians and looks at how you can make your garden frog friendly.
Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.
For me, the end of winter does not coincide with leaves coming into bud and the onset of blossom on roadside trees; it begins rather with the mating rituals of our common frogs, toads and newts.

 Each year, as soon as we get a mild, wet spell, I am out at night on the lookout for large numbers of frogs and toads that cross our local roads in an effort to get to their nearby breeding ponds. This year was no exception; just such a mild spell occurred in late February and my drive home from work over a few nights during this period was punctuated by frequent stops to move these tenacious amphibians out of the danger zone, to the (pond) side of the road!  
The following weekend, I was spending some time in my garden wildlife hide, photographing birds.  Whilst I was sitting quietly inside drinking a well-earned cup of tea, I started to puzzle over a rather odd, monotonous sound, which I initially put down to the gardening activities of a neighbour who lives a few houses away.  As it continued, I realised it was coming from my nearby pond and on venturing outside to investigate, I noticed the sound was coming from mating male frogs!  So, abandoning my bird hide for the afternoon, I spent an extremely enjoyable few hours lying on the cold ground taking pictures of this extraordinary home-grown wildlife spectacle.  

Fifty animals watching me

The most surprising thing to me about these frogs was their confidence.  It was quite obvious that they could see me, because each time I made a small movement more and more animals would come to investigate!  At one point – much to my wife’s amusement - I began to try croaking myself to see whether this might elicit a response from the frogs!  It certainly did, and at one point I counted over fifty animals watching me from a distance of only a few feet. 

Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.

Watching animals behave like this ranks with me as a rather special wildlife experience - wherever you are in the world - and what makes it even more special is that it lasts only a few days each year.  During this period the males are pumped full of testosterone and, like many mating animals, lose their normal wariness of humans.  The following day was mild and I again spent a wonderful afternoon taking more photographs of these, at the time, very obliging creatures.  Shortly afterwards though, the cold weather returned (it is still with us as write this at the end of March) and the frog activity ceased.  As I write, there are a few frogs still around in the pond, but they are very much back to their normal, extremely shy, selves. 

Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.

Shelter for amphibians

I think what surprised me about this event, in addition to the spectacle and the sound, was the sheer numbers of frogs present. I built our garden pond and nearby wildlife grassland area in part to provide shelter for amphibians about five years ago, but until 2013 the amount of frog spawn each spring has been minimal and the number of frogs very low.  

Why numbers have increased so dramatically this year I don’t know.  Perhaps it is because we have experienced a damp and, until recently, relatively mild winter here in south-west England; maybe this resulted in a larger than usual number of amphibians surviving the winter.  However, I am speculating; what I do know is that the presence of such large numbers of this garden-friendly animal is very welcome on my patch.

Build a wildlife pond

As I am sure many of you know, a large part of the diet of frogs and toads is provided by small slugs; these animals are therefore very much the gardeners friend.  If you would like to improve your garden for these (I think) rather beautiful and definitely beneficial creatures, there are many things you can do.  The first (and most obvious) is to build a wildlife pond - assuming you don’t already have one.  Ideally, you should site this in a fairly sunny corner of your garden and make it as large as practically possible; toads for example prefer large ponds and lakes and rarely seem to breed in smaller garden ponds, however you should have no trouble attracting frogs as well as the commoner species of newt.  

The second key point is to make sure your pond design includes areas of shallow water around the margins into which you can plant native aquatic and marginal plants; frogs seem to prefer mating and breeding in and amongst very shallow marginal weeds, whilst toads, by contrast, choose deeper water in which mate and lay their string-like spawn. Newts favour areas of open water in which the males court the females during an elaborate courtship display. Their eggs, unlike frogs and toads, are small, creamy or whitish in colour, only a couple of millimetres across, and laid singly within a folded leaf of a flat-leaved water plant such as water forget-me-not.  A careful inspection of the pond-side vegetation during spring for the concertina-like leaves which result from newt egg-laying will reveal the presence of breeding newts, if they are present.

Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.

Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.

Land management

Management of land adjacent to the pond is also important.  Amphibians, unlike reptiles, spend part of their life-cycle on land, and only return to the water in order to breed.  

During this time they forage in areas of long grass and amongst sheltered vegetation such as scrub and need undisturbed areas of matted, dense vegetation, as well as log piles and areas of rubble in which to hibernate.  These ‘hibernacula’ are easy to make; just pile your logs and other coarse garden material in a corner to rot down and follow a simple rule - don’t be too tidy!  

It’s worth noting though, that whilst areas of long, uncut grass can be very beneficial for amphibians, it is important this is located away from your vegetable plots. Whilst frogs and toads eat many garden pests they will not eat them all, so unkempt wildlife habitat close to vegetable beds can provide a haven for these voracious pests!  

Slug Pellets

Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.
A couple of final tips – first, if you leave areas around the pond to develop into long grass, be very careful when cutting it.  Strim down progressively over a period of days in order to encourage amphibians (and reptiles) to move away first, rather than mowing it down to a close cut immediately; otherwise you could find you inadvertently kill the very animals you have been trying to encourage!  

The second point is to try and avoid using slug pellets, as these will also kill amphibians.  Better by far to manage your garden so there is no shelter close to sensitive plants; in this way pests can be discouraged and will instead tend to favour the areas in which your amphibian pest controllers operate!

Pictures courtesy of Andrew McCarthy, Ecology Consultant, Devon
Reported by Andrew McCarthy  

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