Identification

Adult common toads are quite easily distinguished from frogs by their warty skin, which often appears quite dry. They also move very differently to frogs, preferring a crawling motion to the more familiar frog hop. Common toad skin is generally a brown-green colour, but can vary from terracotta to grey, and usually has some darker patterning. Behind each eye are quite prominent glands which produce irritant, foul-tasting toxins to deter would-be predators. Handling toads is not recommended without gloves! Toads may also be discovered by their call, most commonly when the males produce a high-pitched "qwark, qwark, qwark," when mistaken for a female by another male.

Toads eggs can also be easily identified. Rather than the dense clusters of spawn laid by frogs, toad-spawn is laid out in strings containing a double or triple row of eggs (a single row of eggs would indicate a natterjack toad, though these are rare and not likely to be found in gardens). Tadpoles of the two species are more difficult to distinguish between, but toad tadpoles are generally darker, often black, unlike the brown tadpoles of frogs. Both of these can be distinguished from newt tadpoles by the absence of external feathery gills.

Size

Up to 15cm (6in) long, but generally more like 8cm (3in).

Distribution

Common toads are abundant throughout Great Britain, except the north-west of Scotland where they are rare. They are absent from Ireland.

Status

The only protective legislation for common toads in the UK is to prevent trade in the species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, and they are not listed by IUCN. They remain common and widespread, however they have recently been listed as a priority species under the Biodiversity Action Plan, reflecting a decline in numbers in recent years. Large numbers are killed on roads each year, and loss of breeding ponds seems to also be affecting populations.

Habitat preference

During the day, common toads tend to take refuge in holes in the ground or other damp areas such as leaf piles or compost heaps. They will use similar areas for hibernation during the winter months. At night they emerge to hunt for food in rough grass, woodland, scrub or other suitable habitats. Toads only inhabit water during the spring breeding season, when they will return to their ancestral ponds to lay their eggs, often making hazardous journeys across roads and railway lines to reach these sites. Their tadpoles have generally become toadlets and leave the pond by the end of July.

Where to find them in the garden

During the breeding season the pond is the best place to look, keeping an eye out for the appearance of strings of eggs. In the summer you are more likely to see toads at night, when the ground is damp, seeking out food on the lawn, in hedgerows, or in plant beds. Care must be taken in autumn and winter if disturbing compost heaps, leaf piles, log piles (including bonfires), etc. to avoid harming hibernating toads.

Role in the garden

Common toads feed on any moving prey they can swallow, which mostly consists of invertebrates. This makes them useful when it comes to controlling populations of animals such as slugs, snails, insects, etc, many of which are considered garden pests. Usually they are sit and wait predators, catching prey with their long tongues, however they will roam for food if needed.

The toxic secretions of the toad make it unpalatable for most predators; however some animals, such as hedgehogs and grass snakes, are unfazed by this. Tadpoles also produce skin toxins - but many underwater predators, such as great diving beetles, have piercing mouthparts and are able to bypass this problem.