Ways to help frogs and toads

Two species of frog and two toads are native to the UK. So-called common frogs (Rana temporaria) and common toads (Bufo bufo) are widespread and often spotted in gardens. But sightings of these amphibians have fallen in recent years, and toads in particular are in trouble.

Watch our video and read on to find out what you can do to help.

Small greenish-brown frog with dark markings sitting on bright red and yellow leaves

A common frog (Rana temporaria) on autumn leaves in Warwickshire, UK © Erni/Shutterstock.com

Rare frog and toad species in the UK

Two of the UK's four native frog and toad species are already very rare due to habitat loss.

Natterjack toads (Epidalea calamita) are now only present at about 60 sites in Britain, mainly in coastal areas. They need warmer water to breed successfully and usually choose shallow, short-lived pools on sand dunes, heaths and marshes.

Pool frogs (Pelophylax lessonae) are limited to even fewer sites. Presumed extinct in the UK in 1995, they have since been reintroduced at two sites in Norfolk. They prefer damp, densely vegetated areas with slow moving rivers or ponds and marshes.

Natterjack toad crawling on grass

Natterjack toads (Epidalea calamita) are native to the UK but very rare, threatened by the loss of their sand dune and sandy heath habitats © David Pegzlz/Shutterstock.com

You may not be able to directly help these species due to their specific habitat requirements, but you can lend your support to charities involved in conservation efforts, such as the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust.

This article focuses on actions you can take to help the two frog and toad species that share our urban spaces. Although they are considered widespread - because they aren't restricted to particular habitats and occur in many different parts of the country - they are still facing serious problems.

Common frog and toad populations

The common frog is found throughout Britain and Ireland, as well as much of Europe, while the common toad also has a large European range but is absent from Ireland.

Common frogs can be found anywhere that is damp enough and has a pond or other body of water nearby. Gardens are a key habitat, but regular sightings reported for the RSPB's garden wildlife survey fell by 17% between 2014 and 2018. Numbers are thought to be declining across Europe.

A common frog emerges from green vegetation

A common frog peeking out from dense garden foliage. A 2018 survey found frogs were spotted in more than three-quarters of UK gardens in a year, toads in a fifth. But monthly sightings were down 17% and 30% compared to 2014. © Alexa Zari/Shutterstock.com

More dramatically, reports of toads in gardens dropped by nearly a third over the same period and data collected by toad road crossing patrols from more than 150 sites around the UK revealed a 68% decline between 1985 and 2016. Southeast England saw the largest declines.

What is the problem?

The situation is so bad that Countryfile present Kate Bradbury has suggested common toads should be renamed - replacing 'common' with 'declining'.

Speaking to the Telegraph in February 2020, she warned, 'Following a severe reduction in suitable habitat and high mortality on roads, this otherworldly but endearing species has declined in the UK by 68% in the last 30 years. If this continues, we could lose all our common toads by 2030.'

Common toad at night

Common toads (Bufo bufo) are becoming less common in the UK. If their current decline continues, they could disappear by 2030. © Erik Paterson (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

The main challenges for toads are the loss of breeding ponds and disruption of their migration routes by roads, new buildings and property boundaries.

Frogs are also suffering from a reduction in suitable habitat, particularly a lack of ponds, as well as the arrival of two deadly diseases.

Ways to help

The suggested actions below will increase the survival chances of these species. You may not be able to do all of them, but even small changes can make a difference.

1. Add a pond to your garden

Frogs and toads need ponds to breed. Come springtime they will search out somewhere to lay their spawn.

About a third of ponds in the UK have disappeared in the past 50 years. If too many ponds disappear, so will the amphibians that rely on them.

Common frog in water next to frogspawn

Amphibians such as frogs reproduce in ponds and similar bodies of water. They live entirely underwater during the first stage of their lives as tadpoles. © Lesley Andrew/ Shutterstock.com

The fall in popularity of garden ponds is a big problem, says Jeff Streicher, Senior Curator in Charge of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Museum:

'Common frogs rely on garden ponds, particularly in urban areas. Including an area of water in your outdoor space is one of the biggest differences you can make to this species. It doesn't have to be large.'

Froglife have produced a great guide to creating and looking after a wildlife pond (Just Add Water) and the Woodland Trust provides some top tips for pond owners to maximise the chances of spawn.

Amphibians prefer to breed in ponds that are at least two metres across. However, frogs and newts often lay spawn in much smaller areas and a pond of any size will help them to keep cool and moist in summer, as well as benefiting other local wildlife. If you have limited space, see Froglife's advice on building bog gardens and mini ponds.

When building a new pond, make sure to include gently sloping sides or staggered stones to help animals get out.

Common frog at the edge of a pond with rocks

Ensure that amphibians and other animals such as hedgehogs can get out of any pond in your garden by adding a gentle slope or stones at various depths © Bob Deering/Shutterstock.com

Add native plants to the pond and around the edges. Plants provide shelter, shade and keep the water topped up with oxygen. Young tadpoles eat algae.

The best ponds have both shallow and deep areas. Tadpoles will bask in shallow, shelved areas. Adult toads prefer deeper spots. Including a section that's at least 60 centimetres deep will give frogs and toads somewhere to go that's protected from extreme weather.

Frogs (and sometimes toads) hibernate at the bottom of ponds. They like to bury themselves under soil and debris.

Jeff says, 'Adding a pond is one of the best ways to encourage frogs, toads and newts to come to your garden. Although amphibians often return to areas where they've spawned previously, they will use new ponds - particularly in fragmented aquatic landscapes like London.'

2. Provide piles of rocks, logs and leaves

Outside of the breeding season, common frogs can roam up to 500 metres from a breeding pond. Common toads roam even further, travelling up to five kilometres from their breeding sites.

So even if you don't have a pond and can't add one, there are things you can do to make outdoor spaces better for frogs and toads.

Juvenile common toad among rocks

A tiny young toad (Bufo bufo) sheltering in the crevice of a stone wall. Piles of rocks and logs offer a spot in which to hide from predators such as birds of prey, herons and grass snakes. © davemhuntphotography/Shutterstock.com

Piles of rocks and logs give frogs and toads spaces to shelter in during winter, opportunities to escape from predators and offer shade in hot summers. Gaps under paving slabs or sheds will too.

They are also great places for frogs and toads to forage in for food. So are tall plants and piles of grass or leaves, which also help amphibians keep cool.

3. Create a compost heap

Full of slugs, worms and other invertebrates, a compost heap is a frog and toad buffet. It can also provide a much-needed warm spot to spend winter in.

Take care not to harm possible amphibian inhabitants when turning your compost heap in winter.

Common toad (Bufo bufo) eating a worm

Compost heaps, long grass and piles of leaves are a source of snacks for frogs and toads. They eat slugs and other invertebrates. This common toad is tucking into a worm. © Pavel Mikoska/Shutterstock.com

4. Avoid using pesticides and slug pellets

What you may consider an unwanted garden pest is welcome food for frogs and toads.

As well as depriving frogs and toads of a potential food source, the chemicals in pesticides and slug pellets may harm amphibians directly, poisoning them and causing developmental abnormalities.

Side view of a pale brown common frog with dark brown markings and only small bumps on its skin

Common frogs (Rana temporaria), like the one pictured here, can be distinguished from common toads (Bufo bufo) by a dark patch behind the eye and relatively smooth skin © Richard Bartz (CC BY-SA 2.5) via Wikimedia Commons

What's the difference between common frogs and toads?

Once you've made some of the changes listed above, common frogs and common toads are more likely to visit your garden. If you manage to spot one, how can you tell which it is?

The most obvious visual differences between the two are that the frogs have a dark patch behind the eye and smooth, moist skin, while the toads have bumpy skin. They also move differently. Strong hind legs allow frogs to hop and jump. Toads tend to crawl or make small hops. As the colouring of both species varies a lot, it's not easy to distinguish them based on that.

Discover more identification tips in our UK amphibians guide PDF (367KB), including details of a non-native frog and other amphibians you might see.

5. Drive carefully

Many frogs and toads get squashed on roads each year. When driving or cycling, be aware that what you think is a leaf may be a frog or toad.

Traffic is a major cause of death for toads in particular, as they often migrate over large distances to return to ancestral breeding ponds. More and more, they find their routes divided by busy roads or blocked by new buildings, fences or walls. Froglife estimates that 20 tonnes of toads are killed on UK roads every year, which equates to at least 250,000 toads.

A pair of toads crossing a road in the rain

Toads can travel long distances to reach their breeding sites. Huge numbers are killed crossing UK roads while making this journey. © Jean Kobben/Shutterstock.com

6. Become a toad patroller

Since toads tend to use the same routes each year, it's possible to identify crossing sites and take action to reduce the number of deaths. Measures include installing toad crossing road signs to warn motorists, building wildlife tunnels under roads or even deploying volunteers to help toads cross roads.

Through their Toads on Roads project, Froglife invites anyone to register toad crossing sites so that the sites become eligible for warning signs or to volunteer with an existing toad patrol.

They are also campaigning for more wildlife tunnels.

You can find your nearest toad crossing via the Froglife website. In 2019 alone, more than 107,000 toads were helped across 210 roads by toad patrols.

7. Supervise your pet cat

Cats are natural predators. When left outdoors unsupervised, many kill frogs and toads.

Based on a study of cat owners conducted in 1997, scientists calculated that the UK's population of nine million cats would have killed around five million reptiles and amphibians - mostly frogs - between the start of April and the end of August. 

Domestic cat stalking something in a garden

If you don't want your cat to hunt and kill small animals such as frogs and toads, keep an eye on it outdoors © YuliaPodlesnova/Shutterstock.com

Our cat population has since increased to 10.9 million cats, according to a 2019 YouGov survey for pet vet charity PDSA, increasing the risk to amphibians.

8. Report signs of disease

If you see an ill or dead amphibian tell the Garden Wildlife Health project. By doing so, you will help scientists spot outbreaks and monitor the spread of diseases and their impact.

Two amphibian diseases are of particular concern: ranavirus and chytridiomycosis (chytrid for short).

Ranavirus is an often-deadly disease that can kill large numbers of amphibians in a short space of time. It can cause skin sores, blisters, and internal bleeding. Common frogs seem to be most at risk.

Research indicates that climate change is worsening the severity and spread of ranavirus. Zoological Society of London scientists involved in the study suggest that having areas in which to keep cool - such as log piles, vegetation and deeper ponds - could help frogs fight off the infection.

Chytrid is one of the worst panzootics (the animal equivalent of a pandemic) in the world, wiping out many amphibian populations. So far, there have only been limited numbers of cases in the UK, with the first instances reported in 2005. Toads seem most susceptible.

Chytrid is caused by two species of fungi that attack amphibians' skin, disrupting salt and water regulation, often with fatal consequences.

For more information about ranavirus, chytridiomycosis and other diseases affecting UK amphibians, and what symptoms to look out for, visit the Garden Wildlife Health website.

9. Don't move spawn from one pond to another

Transferring spawn between ponds can spread disease as well as invasive pond plants. Frogs and toads are good at finding suitable ponds for themselves.

A common frog crawling through moss

Common frogs seek out suitable places to lay their spawn. Don't move it between ponds as you risk spreading diseases, but instead try to provide them with suitable habitats. Image courtesy of Ernie, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jeff concludes, 'Providing safe and inviting habitats for amphibians in our gardens and public spaces not only helps out declining UK wildlife, but also enhances our personal connection to the natural world. Something that is beneficial for our own wellbeing.'

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