Heavy traffic on rural roads is obliterating the common toad

A speeding motor car, said Toad of Toad Hall, is a "glorious, stirring sight ... Poop, poop!" Driving at full pelt along country lanes, casting dust clouds behind him, was the "only way to travel", he told his friends Ratty and Mole.

But, it has emerged, his closest relations are paying a heavy price for that love affair with rural motoring. Scientists have unearthed "very worrying" evidence that increasingly heavy traffic on country roads is decimating Britain's common toad.

A new study by English Nature has found that across lowland areas of eastern, central and south-eastern England, toad numbers are suffering from "excessive decline". In parts of East and West Sussex and the Midlands, they have completely disappeared.

And among the affected areas are toad-breeding sites just a few miles up the Thames from where Kenneth Grahame set his children's classic, The Wind in the Willows. It's here that common toad numbers are dropping sharply - despite local efforts to warn drivers during the toads' migration season in early spring.

Tom Langton, director of Froglife, the conservation charity which gathered much of English Nature's data, said: "It's desperately sad for anyone who loves toads."

English Nature's findings follow an alarming warning by scientists earlier this month that up to a third of the world's amphibians were facing extinction.

However, that World Conservation Union study did not cover the plight of the British toad. Yet, believes English Nature, its situation is also "very worrying". After examining 145 toad sites around Britain, it found that in more than half of the areas studied in East Anglia, the East Midlands and the South-east, toads were in decline or extinct.

The agency's report says the key problem for the common toad, bufo bufo, is its lifestyle and habits. Unlike its cousin, the less fussy common frog, toads tend to have a fixed routine. They migrate between specific ponds and hibernation areas - regardless of man-made barriers such as roads and housing estates. However, the experts are still puzzled about why the decline has been so sharp in many areas, while in other, less busy parts of the country, toad numbers are stable or even increasing.

The last official estimate, 10 years ago, suggested there were five million common toads nationwide, and English Nature's experts are pressing for a programme of concerted scientific research to assess how severe the decline has become.

The agency is also expected to call for toad conservation to become a key part in any plans to build or expand roads or to build on greenfield sites.

And there is a further irony for Mr Toad, said Mr Langton, now that modern cars are even more able to drive safely at high speed. "When you're pootling along at 30 or 40 mph, it's easy just to miss a common toad crossing a road, where as at 50 or 60, it's much less easy. Speed kills, and it kills more toads," he said.

TOAD ON THE HORSELESS CARRIAGE

Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured "Poop-poop!" ...

"Glorious, stirring sight!" murmured Toad, never offering to move.

"The poetry of motion! The REAL way to travel! The ONLY way to travel! Here today - in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped - always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!"

The Wind in the Willows (1908)

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