The poet Robert Burns wrote his poem beginning “Wee, slickit,cowerin’ timorous beastie” when his ploughshare destroyed the nest of a local field mouse. Such damage is all too easily done particularly now when many of the small creatures living close to us are finding new homes and facing the winter ahead in their different ways.
Two years ago I got a new- very small – garden pond, hoping for frogspawn and tadpoles. Nothing much happened – then, a couple of weeks ago – we spotted one, then two, then three large frogs resting in the water with just their foreheads and protuberant eyes showing above the surface, like shiny bits of molded black plastic. Success! Now we’re wondering where these fine specimens will spend the winter. Frogs hibernate, just keeping their metabolism ticking over, and they can do this in the silt at the bottom of ponds. I once found one, slightly flattened and very cold, under a bit of carpet I’d put down to kill weeds. It looked dead but, when I revisited two days later, it had gone – no doubt offended by the intrusion!
Other amphibians, newts and toads, behave similarly. A friend in Menston got quite fond of a large toad that spent the summer in a hollow under some membrane she’d laid on a path across her vegetable garden. Whenever she watered the veg, toad would emerge to enjoy the shower. As Autumn wetness set in she forgot about it until the other day, when she was clearing the bed and happened to press down on the membrane. There was a plaintive squeaking, “just like a mouse”, she said. It was Toad. When threatened, some amphibians, once they reach a certain size, can fill their stout bodies with air and release it in a piercing shriek, startling a would-be predator. Perhaps this toad wasn’t quite big enough or was still practising. Certainly, making mouse sounds is not a very clever way of frightening enemies – mice being top prey item on most lists. Toads taste unpleasant and can exude a repellent liquid when necessary – a better idea all round. It’s now gone off to find a safer hiding place.
It’s important to leave some suitable spots in the garden if you want to encourage endangered but useful frogs and toads: a pile of logs or stones in a secluded corner or drifts of dead leaves on edges of flowerbeds. A hedgehog might appreciate this too. The advice for wildlife gardeners is comforting: no need to be too tidy.