Added 30 March 2005

Anurans in South London

Local wildlife in unlikely places

Like many houses in South London, we do not have a big garden - the polite expression is "courtyard garden", which describes a small space backing onto the house with no grass and a strip of soil around the three edges that border onto other gardens. In theory this is easy to maintain. In practice it is easy to allow less welcome flora, such as ivy and brambles, to run wild, until the courtyard garden looks more like a jungle clearing, the litter of broken flowerpots, dilapidated garden furniture and other man-made detritus merely adding points of interest. Even an abundance of snails can't keep such a riot at a manageable level, so every so often a slash-and-destroy operation is mandatory (yes, I know I should do it regularly to save myself work - duh!).

On Easter Monday 2005 I was clearing up the accumulated mess of a couple of years of neglect in our back garden. Having filled several old fertiliser bags with dessicated dead brambles to finally expose the paving slabs beneath, I was working my way to the edges of the garden. As I was about to pull up an unwanted weed from a whole flower bed full, I suddenly noticed something large and glistening beneath it. My first thought was that it was a very large slug. On closer inspection, however, the unidentified object turned out to be two Bufo bufo (Common Toad) in amplexus, the smaller male riding on top of the rather bulky female.

This was interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the gardens in our road are small and fairly self-contained, enclosed from one another by fences, albeit often chain-link types through which a determined toad or frog could possibly squeeze. Secondly, I am unaware of any body of water in any of our neighbours' gardens, which begs the issue of where the toads were originally born.

At this point I called my wife and she brought out a present from some while ago that we had not yet had occasion to use, a "toad pot". This is basically a bell-shaped earthenware pot turned upside down with a hole in the side at ground level for access for toads and frogs to act as a moist shelter. I placed this in the corner of the garden near the two Bufo, who were sitting stolidly ignoring me, and carried on working, rather more carefully this time.

Now I began hearing a soft peeping sound. At first I wondered if it was the sound of an insect (similar to a cricket chirping), or perhaps a piece of detached rotting wood from an old crate sliding down the sound of a still half-full fertiliser bag. Just to check I lifted up the fertiliser bag, and to my consternation found a rather flattened looking third toad beneath it. Fearful that I might have carelessly dumped a heavy weight on it, I gingerly picked up the toad (I had rather damp garden gloves on, which would have minimised skin irritation for both parties). To my relief the toad wriggled somewhat, then sat in my cupped hands looking at me. All three Bufo bufo found thus far were the olive green colour rather than the brown seen in some other regions, but this was probably due to a change in colour for the breeding season.

The mess in this part of the garden consisted of the dried out remains of brambles previously cut off, plus a thin layer of soil and dirt that had built up naturally and, perhaps most importantly, the soggy remains of a wooden crate we had once acquired and which I had broken up. I suspect that this combination had created a damp microclimate in that part of the garden, aided by the fact that the garden backing onto ours is somewhat higher and thus creates something of a shadow even when the sun is directly overhead.

Our last guest turned out to be a frog which I did not notice until I started to move some of the dead brambles, at which point it hopped forward once and then sat motionless, not deliberately looking at me but no doubt keeping one eye open for any further movement on my part. Although I was fairly certain that this was a Common Frog, I wanted to make sure since the previous year we had spotted a rather strange nocturnal anuran that I could not pin down but which I believe was a Rana esculenta, certainly not native (nowadays anyway) to the UK. A look in the Nöllert's Guide to European Amphibians seemed to confirm that it was Rana temporaria, however. Seeing both common anuran species together in the same area is quite interesting because it allows a comparison of their obvious external characteristics, namely the coppery iris, horizontal pupil and warty olive skin of Bufo bufo, the Common Toad, versus the round pupil, lighter skin colour and banded markings of Rana temporaria, the Common Frog.

The presence of these animals in our garden has been hugely encouraging to me, not only for personal reasons (the pleasure of having herps around outside) but also because it shows that given the right condition, native reptiles and amphibians can survive even in what may seem unpromising localities. For my own part I am leaving this part of the garden as it is and have also dusted off an outdoor amphibian enclosure. This has a healthy undergrowth of plants in pots, a fairly generous substrate of garden soil and a large bowl of water which I hope that the toads and perhaps any frog pairs as well will use for spawning.

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