Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Frogs: Sex, Mayhem & Confusion

So it is now officially spring, yet the weather is still cold - much colder than is usual.  We even had a blizzard a couple of days ago turning the secret valley white once again for several hours. The snow turned to rain and was washed away.  At least we have longer hours of daylight to look forward to.  On the rare occasions when the weather brightens, the strengthening warmth of the sun on the skin lifts the spirits after months of grey, cold dampness.

Some years, the surface of the pond is covered in spawn

It is that time of year when the local frog populations' spirits are also lifted as they emerge from hibernation and crawl out from under the leaf litter and fallen twigs of the old hedgerow above the little stone cottage.  Under cover of darkness they cross the lane, all making their way towards the pond two fields away.  For some reason they don't take a direct route but detour to our garden door (and if open), march through the sitting room, into the kitchen and out through the back door.  If the door is shut the sound of tapping on the glass panels as they attempt to jump through is continuous.

In other years there can be very little

But not this year.  There have been no signs of the frogs on the road and no-one has come a-knockin'. The weather seems to have got the better of them: they are as confused and, perhaps as depressed, as we humans after twelve months of cold and wet.

Trying to look innocent...

In normal springs the culmination of their journey is celebrated in a frenzied orgy in the calm water of the pond.  If you creep up on them, their presence betrayed by a carcophany of croaking, they become still and gaze up at you with a degree of embarrassment.  Trying to look innocent they sit willing you to believe that they wouldn't do anything so vulgar (or exciting, depending on your outlook) as sex in public.  As soon as they think the coast is clear they return to their shenanigans making the pond look like a whirlpool bathtub.

Caught in the act!

This year the frogs have returned silently.  There is no sign of them in the water or of their frogspawn floating like oil slicks on the surface.  In the confusion of the weather, where every surface is as wet as any other, the frogs have spawned on top of the fence posts that protects the pond.  The larger posts wear a crown of spawn, the smaller ones cannot hold it and it slides off, dripping to the ground.  It is a strange and  unsettling sight: something that we have never seen before.

Frogspawn falling and decaying from every fence post

What does this mean for the frogs?  The eggs cannot survive and if they do not lay more in the water the population must surely crash.  We already miss seeing their heads turn toward us as we walk past; we miss their visits to the cottage even more.  It will be sad if that becomes a thing of the past as has the song of the cuckoo and the churr of the nightjar, both summer visitors to the secret valley not so many years ago.

Sadly, there is no chance of this spawn hatching successfully

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Stonehenge - 5000 years later

Stonehenge is one of the most important and instantly recognised ancient sites in the world yet those of us that live in the British Isles tend to take it rather for granted.  Perhaps this is inevitable with anything that is on your doorstep, however it is strange that whereas many of us long to see (or perhaps have been lucky enough to have visited), say, the Pyramids of Giza or Machu Picchu, very many Brits have never visited Stonehenge.  Perhaps if they had made the trip they would have been rather surprised at what they saw - and I don't mean the majesty of the stones.

Over the years, the numbers of visitors to the stones has increased dramatically from twenty thousand a year in the 1920's to over a million last year.  As numbers increased so erosion and vandalism began to take its toll and access within the circle was stopped.  Now it is only possible to enter the stones on special occasions, such as the summer solstice.  This means that the majority of visitors are only able to walk around the perimeter of the henge.  The memory of my first visit as a child is of running amongst the stones, of being able to touch them and to look up at their immense height - would I remember it now if I hadn't had this intimate contact with them then?

To view a video of how the Stonehenge area is being transformed into a spectacular, world-class attraction, click the link here

Some years after that early visit and with numbers rapidly increasing a 'temporary' visitor centre was built in the late1960's.  This, along with inadequate car parking  and lack of modern interpretation facilities makes the first impressions of this World Heritage Site poor, to say the least.  Two busy main roads also pass closeby the stones destroying much of the quality of the landscape.  Traffic jams are frequent.

Now this may all sound rather depressing (which it is) and a good reason to cross a visit to Stonehenge off your list of 'must see' places.  Fortunately, despite everything, the grandeur of the stones remain and it is an awe-inspiring place to be, especially if you are able to arrive early in the day or when the stones are shrouded in mist.

Now the good news!  After many years of discussion, Stonehenge is about to be 'returned'
to its original landscape: the visitor centre, car parks and main road leading to them are being swept away and landscaped back to open grassland, giving the stones a greater sense of isolation.  A new centre with educational and other facilities are being built further away and  a low impact shuttle service will transport those visitors that don't wish to - or are unable to - walk.  This may be a few years away from completion but work has started.  In the not-so-distant future, Stonehenge will have the facilites and landscape that such an important site deserves.

Stonehenge is part of a vast conservation area with over three hundred burial mounds and also includes the Avebury stone circle (link here).  It is about 85 miles south-west of London.  Although not as huge or as frequently visited we have many ancient stone monuments in the Cotswolds too.   The Rollright Stones, a stone circle, photos below, are also 5000 years old, their shapes distorted and lichen covered with age.  To read my earlier post about them, click here.

For information on visiting Stonehenge and its history (and how some of their huge stones are thought to have been dragged 150 miles from Wales), click here

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