It’s rather embarrassing for someone claiming an affinity towards British nature to admit that they have more than a minor aversion to frogs and toads. In fact, I can’t bloody stand them. I don’t like the unpredictable leaps of common frogs, and I’m not overly keen on warts; I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a toad screaming, but it’s genuinely unnerving.
With this in mind, let us fast-forward to north Norfolk, a warm summer’s evening sometime in July, with the sunset casting long shadows in the sand. Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust is our precise location, right by the entrance to the reserve; we’ve only stepped out of the car briefly to scan for bats, and to take a last look at the beautiful shifting seascape before heading back to Leicestershire. The last visitors to the reserve are drifting away to their own homes, or no doubt to the nearest pub.
Now, even if the visitor centre had been open at 21:30 at night, they don’t offer toilet facilities. A leaflet helpfully indicates that the nearest WC is at Holme Golf Course, which is a fair walk back down the road and when you are hopping from foot-to-foot, is simply not an option. Let me clarify at this point that my evening had consisted of prioritising the aforementioned pub over my natural history and two pints no longer seemed like such a good idea. So I did what any true naturalist would do: followed the path into the increasingly dark dunes, found a secluded spot, and (at the risk of sounding crass) dropped ‘em. Incidentally I don’t know what the law is regarding peeing on NNRs; maybe something they should include in future publications?
The first two points of my strategy went according to plan; the third, however, caused something of a predicament. As I lowered myself (it’s a lot more difficult for girls), a slight movement caught my eye in the sand no more than a foot away. It was squat, dark, and crawling very rapidly towards the sound of running water. I swung the light of my phone up, and there before me was one of Britain’s rarest (and arguably most fascinating, if you like that sort of thing) amphibians: the natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita) .
Paul Sterry in Collins Complete Guide to British Animals (a brilliant guide) describes the natterjack as ‘a charming little amphibian’ – I beg to differ when it catches you with your pants down; I will concur however that ‘it can reach commendable speeds’, and that ‘they can disappear from view’. Well, it is safe to say that I squealed, the toad froze mid-crawl, and we ended up in some kind of awkward bufonid stalemate. My fascination for identification overcame both modesty and fear, and I couldn’t help but examine the creature by the light of my phone (without touching it, of course).
In appearance it is much like a common toad, warts and all, with the addition of a yellowish vertebral stripe, and is incredibly scarce in Britain. Little pockets of distribution exist on habitats which offer free-draining sandy soils for burrowing, and shallow, seasonal ponds for breeding, for example the exact conditions provided by Holme Dunes. Certainly it was a rare natterjack toad, certainly it was quite confused by this turn of events, and certainly I had come very close to urinating on one of Britain’s rarest (not to mention protected by law) species.