Mr. Toad on the Road
Text and sketches by Annelies Vanherck
Pictures by Annelies Vanherck and Peter Vanherck
This is the view behind my house in Mol, Belgium. It fascinates me to see how this landscape changes from day to day. I think it’s a very beautiful landscape, in a quiet, unimpressive sort of way. It is very green, which gives a lot of people the impression that all is well there. But it’s a landscape that has been formed and endlessly manipulated by people. This means there’s a vast array of ecological problems going on in this small stretch of land. One of these problems occurs all over Europe and also just down the road from my house.
Do you know this fictional character? This is Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, a classic of English children’s literature. He’s an anthropomorphic toad who loves cars. He’s rich, likes technology and is known for his selfish and irresponsible driving and behaviour, even though he has a good heart. One of many interpretations of this character has been that it’s Grahame’s comment on industrialization.
As an illustrator I am very fond of the fantasty and I think imagining things should definitely be encouraged, but I also think that children’s literature has a great responsibility in educating children about animals. In Wind in the Willows, human and animal characters intermingle freely and there seems to be no difference in their behaviour. It is not the aim of this book to teach children about animal behaviour, but I still believe that the natural behaviour of animals should be taken into account when creating anthropomorphic characters. It is a great opportunity to bring children the right information. If they grow attached to the characters, maybe they will also learn to care for real animals as well.
A good example of how I think it should be done is Watership Down by Richard Adams. The animals in this book are also anthropomorphic, but their relationship to humans is very realistic, and throughout the book the author constantly refers back to books he had read about rabbit behaviour. It is fiction, but it conveys a lot of correct information about the animals to children.
This is a book by Leyland Perree. It teaches children how to safely cross the road, with the story of a toad that goes to visit his female cousin on the other side of the road. However, in reality the combination of toads and roads usually looks a bit different.
This is a road close to my house.
And this is what you very often find there at a certain time of the year. At the end of winter, toads wake up from hibernation and migrate back to the pool where they were born. They go there to find a mate and to lay eggs, and nothing can stop them from completing this mission. But with today’s network of roads crossing their path, they often end up getting stuck in drainpipes or getting run over by cars.
Of course people didn’t like seeing all those dead toads on the roads, so they came up with a solution.
Sometimes roads are closed completely, and signs put up to warn drivers about the toads crossing. Where closing off the road isn’t possible, a plastic barrier is put up so that the animals can’t reach the roads. All along this barrier, buckets are dug into the ground, so that the toads will fall into the buckets when they walk along the barrier. Every night, volunteers empty the buckets full of toads on the other side of the road so that the animals can continue their trek. This is a very effective solution and it has saved many toads, but of course it’s still only a treatment of a symptom.
This map shows most of the roads within a few kilometres of that road near my house, in the middle of the countryside. In Belgium you don’t get a village which has one long road to the next village, and so on. Instead, you get many roads everywhere in the countryside and the houses are built next to these roads. The real problem is that this kind of spatial planning is dividing the habitats of wild animals into tiny little pieces. This action results in many problems for these animals; the toads getting run over is only one of these.