John Sandilands


The Toad Cross Code

Date published: 1980s
Publisher: YOU magazine

John could spin straw into gold, or turn toads into princes, as this article shows.


Tom Langton watches you carefully as he introduces you to a toad, its alarming, science-fiction fingers blindly searching for a grip on his outstretched hand. The toad has a face like Eric Heffer on a Bernard Manning body, the whole ungainly assemblage sprinkled with warts like a portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Nature, you judge, has not been kind to the toad if its future relies on media exposure, which is the reason for arousing this particular toad from its seasonal hibernation to pose, as winningly as it can, for the waiting camera.
It’s a photocall for the Toads on Roads campaign of 1985 and Langton, mastermind of this latest demand on the public’s awareness of the plight of harassed minorities, is placing a lot of faith in the possibility of making toads appealing. There is a stockpile of trendy toadiana back at the campaign headquarters: ‘Help a Toad Across the Road’ T-shirts, car stickers, beer mats and posters are all in the pipeline, and he is working hard to sell the lumpy little amphibian as a star.
“Just look at those golden eyes!” he says as the toad droops its heavy lids as if about to hibernate, or worse, right there in his palm. “They’re terrific survivors. They’ve got a million years of history, you know.” The toad’s chins undulate powerfully as if it’s trying to suppress a monstrous burp which has been troubling it since the Stone Age.
Unquestionably there are image problems in soliciting public support for a creature best known to most people as a term of abuse and which even Shakespeare dismissed as no more than an ingredient in a witches’ stew. Nothing, from the toad’s Latin name, Bufo bufo, to its Greek classification, herpes, which means slimy or slithery as well as what everyone now thinks it means, seems designed for smooth PR. Somehow, though, Langton has to deal with the difficulties because otherwise there would be no toads to protect.
He tries again. “Just look at those subtle markings! Everybody thinks toads are nasty, slippery creatures but feel that amazing skin. Dry as a bone! And talk about determination ...” He sets the toad down on the road where it promptly sets off as if for some important engagement, hampered only by its peculiar gait, which looks like the swagger of a portly John Wayne, executed in very slow motion.
It’s in this same ponderously jaunty fashion that toads, for years now, have been taking giant steps towards extinction. Their crisis point, Langton explains, comes in early spring when they migrate from their winter habitat to the ponds of their choice along predetermined routes, often as ancient as the toads themselves. What fails to penetrate their low, slightly puzzled foreheads is the fact that certain obstacles have arisen during the aeons of their occupation of the earth, most notably the ever-increasing network of roads. Moving slowly and in great numbers, mostly at night and with their golden eyes no more than an inch above the ground the historic migratory stream collides sickeningly with the 20th century.
Of all the predators that wildlife faces, the car has become among the most ferocious and there is even a piece of conservation jargon, DOR, to express the toll it takes. It means Dead on Roads and in a single night on a major motorway 3,000 toads have been accounted DOR, squashed by heedless traffic.
It is to counter this annual slaughter that the British Herpetological Society has launched its current drive, effectively a plan for a roadside round-up of migrating toads and a manual air-lift across the principal hazard by such caring individuals as can be found, prepared to treat a warty little creature like Bufo bufo with dignity and kindness.  The task of Tom Langton, the young ecologist who is conservation officer for the Society and newly appointed herpetologist for the Flora and Fauna Protection Society, is to get this show literally on the road and he, at least, might have been designed by Nature for just such a job in the age of communication.
Slim, tousle-haired and suitably anoraked, he is a model of contemporary ecological chic and he presses the various buttons which activate the media with a computer operator’s offhand expertise: “We’re well behind the rest of Europe in all this,” he points out, the token toad now back in his hand and blinking as though about to burst into tears. “In Holland, half the country turns out for the two weeks of the migration. It’s like a national institution over there. JThe Swiss close off whole sections of road that cross known migratory paths and as for the Germans ...” He pauses so that you’re obliged to ask him what the Germans do, increasing the likelihood that you’ll make a note of it.
The Germans, it emerges, actually build tiny tunnels under their motorways, complete down to little steps at either end of help the toads with their awkward method of locomotion. And two-way tunnels at that, since, with Teutonic efficiency, they have tumbled that toads which have been to the pond are at much the same risk while making their way back to where they came from. Since this is Britain the Roads on Roads campaign comes nowhere near such high technology, relying heavily on volunteer effort and the slightly ramshackle methods which the British seem to prefer when tackling almost anything.
The campaign’s instructional leaflet, prepared for schools and Scout troops and Women’s Institutes and other modest organisations which actually keep the country going, contains a diagram for a do-it-yourself method of toad control involving a sheet of plastic and some wooden pegs, for a totally outlay of perhaps 50p. By pegging the plastic along the roadside at a crossing point the toads can be baffled into lolloping along the barrier in search of an opening, thus arriving at a collecting point where a volunteer can scoop them into a bucket and carry them across the pond.
The major governmental interpolation in this merciful activity is the Department of the Environment’s agreement to a new road sign which shows the silhouette of a toad inside a warning red triangle. It is intended not only to protect the toads but the toad-minders from the careering lunatics in cars who show such scant regard for people, let alone amphibians.
Langton mentions the sign with the quiet pride of anybody who has got anything past a government department but, in fact, in the cause of economy, the DoE merely copied the design of the sign in use in Holland. There they drive on the right so that to the British motorist the road depicted seems to be hopping out of danger instead of into it. The DoE intend to deal with the matter in due course.
Langton deals with the nuts and bolts of the Toads on Roads campaign dutifully but knowing that they lack a certain amount of red corpuscle in media terms. He is clearly aware that the success or otherwise of this spring’s toad campaign in Britain depends on the public attitude to toads themselves and he is shrewd enough to see that the major pitfall is that people don’t usually think about toads at all.
“but that’s the whole point,” he says, so energetically that the token toad in his hand looks almost alert for a moment. “Anybody can get excited about the conservation of magnificent golden eagles or cuddly koala bears. The toad’s a strange looking creature that doesn’t affect people’s everyday lives very much, but it has been on the earth for a very long time and it has its place in the ecological system that involves us all. If the campaign does no more than cause a driver leaving a pub at closing time to stop and ask himself whether he would rather run over a toad or take some care and let it live, then the effort is worthwhile.”
But of course, at this stage of the toad’s long evolution it’s a little more complicated than that. There are a thousand good causes nudging at the elbows of the media and Langton is finally obliged to throw the big switch which makes cameras turn and arc lights glow and even ballpoints whirr. “Why,” he says with great deliberation, “do you think that toads are so determined to cross the road? “ You return his gaze with a toad-like furrow of the brow and he allows the pause to lengthen. “Sex,” he says suddenly, observing with scientific detachment the response this key word provokes in media men – rapid eye movements, quickened breathing, a dramatic increase in the attention span.
Now, with the toad back in its cardboard box and his audience instead in the palm of his hand,  Langton describes the sex life of toads in the full, frank, no-holds-barred fashion normally encountered by the media only in their dealings with Prince Andrew’s girlfriends. The story begins, as it often does, in the depths of some damp woodlands, where the toads rest until the temperature changes of early spring trigger them into wakefulness. Their first thought, another familiar phenomenon, is of sex but, as in human affairs, it isn’t as easy as all that.
Toads require such specific conditions in the water where they mate that one of the wonders of their life cycle is that they don’t simply turn over and go back to sleep. Frogs are so haphazard that they will drop their spawn in a puddle if there are no ponds to hand. Toads will John Wayne their difficult way past convenient ponds to reach the ones of their particular fancy. Even provided with substitute, custom-built ponds (the Germans will stop at nothing) and resettled to take advantage of them, the toads will trudge across the country to their traditional honeymoon grounds.
In that case, even a hazard as lethal as a motorway, let alone the lesser roads which are now traversed ever faster by cars escaping the hazards of the motorways, will not divert a toad with sex on its mind.
When Tom Langton reveals the ultimate, innermost secrets of what goes on among those who manage to reach the pond you being to see why. Down there, beneath the moon and amidst the rustling reeds, there are scenes the like of which can only be encountered on the Costa del Sol in summertime. It’s the female toad who chooses and the biggest male toads which are her invariable choice.
Again, as in human life, the smaller male toads do their level best to alter this state of affairs. Mating takes place by a method known as amplexus, by which the male toad leaps on the female toad’s back and holds her tight in his strong little arms. A small toad, in an excess of frustration, will do his best to drag an unwilling female from among the parade along the bank of the pond and into the pond itself. There the water amplifies his wimpish mating chirrup and makes him sound like a much larger toad, with most satisfactory results. Anyone who can hear a tale like that and not want to help a toad across the road must have a heart of stone and, as Tom Langton knows, his job is complete. There’s just one more good angle that he doesn’t mention in connection with the Toads on Roads campaign. Ironically enough, the only toad that anybody had ever heard of before this, Mr Toad himself, greeted his first sight of a motor car with a chirrup that must have aroused every girl-toad in the district. “Oh bliss!” he carolled, “Oh poop-poop. Oh my, oh my!” He could not have foreseen the future impact of poop-poop on Bufo bufo, but Langton was almost certainly keeping that back for one of those children’s programmes on the television. 

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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>