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Postgraduate Lives: 'Toads are not cute, but I like them'

John Wilkinson, PhD student at the University of Kent

John Wilkinson, 34, is doing a PhD at the University of Kent, researching the ecology and conservation of the European toad on the island of Jersey.

John Wilkinson, 34, is doing a PhD at the University of Kent, researching the ecology and conservation of the European toad on the island of Jersey.

There are very interesting things going on here in Jersey. There used to be plenty of toads, so many that islanders were called crapauds, from the Jersey-Norman word for toad. Toad populations have declined on the island for decades, and now there are very few natural toad ponds, but toads are still synonymous with Jersey and many still think of themselves as crapauds. It used to be a derogatory term; now people are proud of it. A statue to a toad was recently erected in the capital, St Helier.

Toads are not cute and cuddly, but I like them. I remember being fascinated by the toads which bred in a fishpond near my parents' house during my childhood in Shropshire. The dramatic transformation from tadpole to toad still gets kids excited today.

I did my undergraduate degree in zoology at Aberdeen and wrote my thesis on amphibians in northern Italy. I then worked as a research assistant for a few years before getting a job as co-ordinator of the declining amphibian populations task force, a global organisation based at the Open University. My PhD research means I can spend more time in the field, which I love.

Toads usually prefer to breed in large bodies of water, like lakes and reservoirs. In Jersey they used to breed in small, temporary ponds behind sand dunes, which is exactly where developments, such as housing estates, have been taking place. Now they are breeding in garden ponds. It's a modern conservation phenomenon; without garden ponds they would disappear.

Until recently I've been visiting ponds at night and catching toads with a net. I give them a blue spot - a dose of dye under the skin. It's not invasive; it's done without using a needle. I then weigh and measure the toad and let it go. So far there are 900 toads on Jersey with blue spots. The ones I recapture will help assess the size of Jersey's populations.

In the next three years I'll be comparing the dynamics of wild and garden toad populations to see if garden ponds are the toads' last refuge. I'll be mapping Jersey toad populations using GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and comparing them with those in southern England and northern France to see if the factors affecting them are the same. I'll also take genetic samples to see if Jersey toads suffer from any genetic problems. Hopefully the research will lead to a conservation plan for the toads of Jersey and shed some light on parallel toad declines in central and southern England.

There's been a lot of interest in the project - from the local media and from residents - and we've set up a toad hotline for people to report their sightings. We had 200 phone calls and 100 emails in six weeks. This has helped to identify over 100 new breeding sites. We're also producing a car sticker that reads: "Here toady, gone tomorrow".