Author: Lizzie Bruce, Warden, The Lodge nature reserve

On a warm spring evening whilst out on the heath here at The Lodge Nature Reserve you may be lucky enough to hear the strange rasping croak of the natterjack toad.

Today they are Britain’s rarest amphibian but this has not always been the case as highlighted in Janet Browne’s biography of well known English naturalist, Charles Darwin.

‘We had a very amusing expedition to Gamlingay heath in search of Natterjacks,’ wrote John Meadows Rodwell. ‘Darwin was very successful in detecting the haunts of these pretty reptiles and catching them. He brought several to Prof. Henslow who said laughingly – Well Darwin, are you going to make Natterjack pie?’ (Charles Darwin: Voyaging:  Volume 1 of a biography). 

The decline in this fascinating reptile has been linked to changes in land use which has resulted in many areas of their heathland home being lost across the UK - including the site of Darwin’s visit, Gamlingay heath.

Natterjack toad Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

To help protect the future of natterjack toads, in the 1980’s, conservationists began a programme of reintroducing the species to areas of remaining heathland. We were delighted to host the first natterjack reintroduction here at The Lodge through a partnership programme between the RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC).

So far, the project has been a great success and on a recent lunchtime walk at The Lodge I was surprised to come across natterjacks in the ponds during the day even though they are traditionally a nocturnal species. The male toads cannot hop, so they emerge from their burrows and run to position themselves close to the water’s edge where they make their unmistakable croak. On a still night this can be heard up to 2 km away!

This year, I was lucky enough to watch the toads spawn and saw some long strings of eggs appear. Each toad will lay one ‘string’ which can hold an incredible 4000 eggs. A week later I was back and the pond was full of tiny black wriggly tadpoles and within eight weeks we should start to see toadlets the size of a fingernail emerge and disappear into the surrounding vegetation. They will take two years to reach full maturity, when we hope to see them back at the pond ready to breed once again.

It’s great to see our rare species going for strength to strength at The Lodge and I am loving walking in Darwin’s footsteps as we help to protect a species that fascinated one of the UK’s most esteemed naturalists.

For a chance to hear the natterjack toad for yourself, book a place on the RSPB’s special ‘Twilight Walk (the nightshift)’ at The Lodge nature reserve, Friday 20 May, 8 pm-10 pm.

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