From the age of ten I used to go around with my friend Tony and we’d collect animals. I had a pit in my back garden that I’d dug out by hand. It was twelve feet long and eight foot wide. I’d dug in three feet deep with sheer sides. It had a pond which was an old porcelain sink, rocks, grass, slates and various plants.
I used to go off catching grass-snakes, slow-worms, lizards, frogs, newts and toads and keep them in my pit. At feeding time I’d throw in mealworms, slugs and earthworms and they’d come out and eat.
There was one magical place that Tony and I would go to visit every year. By the side of the river was a big lagoon that faded away into ponds and swamp. There was one particular pond that was special. Every toad in the whole area came there to mate and lay their spawn.
We’d sit for hours looking at it. There was something surreal about it. It was full of hundreds of toads, most paired off, and the weeds were festooned with strings of toadspawn in long strands like Christmas decorations. It was totally different to frogspawn. They laid it in long lines of jelly with black dots that were draped over the weed.
We thought it was the most incredible place in the world. We’d collect a couple of pairs of breeding toads to take back to our ponds and some toadspawn and go off feeling that everything was right with the world.
Then one year it wasn’t alright.
We arrived at the place to find devastation. Toads were floating upside down in the water shot with air-gun pellets. Toads were cut in half, toads pinned to the ground with sticks through their bellies, there were toads with legs cut off dragging themselves along, and toads that had been inflated a burst. It was like a scene from a Bosch painting.
We were horrified, heartbroken and filled with fury. We could tell that it was recent from the state of the dying toads.
Without saying a word we dropped out collected nets and jars and charged off down the river.
We soon found them – the culprits. There were a dozen older boys with catapults and air-guns. They were firing at a duck who was sitting on a nest on an island.
We flew at them in blind rage, fists pounding, feet kicking.
They laughed and threw us in the river.
We went back to that place in the years to come but there was never a single toad.
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