Aliens that laugh in the night

Originally published May 2010

Hello everyone! Whilst strolling though Quarry Wood the other day I suddenly had a vivid flashback to my school days; in particular a little school on Cooden Drive, Bexhill (now St Michaels Care Home!), ran by two elderly sisters from Belgium. What had me cogitating on the Halcyon days of four decades ago? I shall keep you in suspense at least until we have had our customary show of hands.

This month’s ramblings involve a case of mistaken identity, an intrepid journey and yet more of my jingoistic bellowing on the benefits of protecting our native species! So can you lovers of a good mystery connect the 1943 elected Conservative MP for Ashford, a french delicacy and the invasion of our countryside? No, not 1066 and all that, but some rather jovial amphibians.

In 1932 the wife of Edward Percy Smith, Tory candidate, playwright and all round good egg, decided to surprise him with a gift of twelve edible French Frogs (Pelophylax esculentus formerly Rana esculenta) for his garden in Stone in Oxney on the edge of the Romney Marshes. Not intended as a side dish on Gallic theme nights, the frogs were meant to provide aesthetic wonderment with their bright colours and keep unwanted insects at bay. Unfortunately for some reason the good lady ended up with twelve specimens of the Large Hungarian Marsh Frog (Pelophylax ridibundus formerly Rana ridibunda). The latin scholars amongst you will have already translated their name and may now see where all this is leading. The twelve Laughing Frogs (as they are also known) very soon decided that Mr Smith’s little pond was nothing compared to the vast marshlands over the garden wall. In his wonderful Kine Saga, A. R. Lloyd describes in fictional terms how the Founding Twelve spawned and travelled via the maze of dykes and channels pursued by another introduced species, the deadly Mink. As both species never venture far from water this part of the story certainly rings true.

What cannot be disputed is that by the 1960s Laughing Frogs had colonised the whole of Romney Marsh. Today we can hear their calls a few hundred yards beyond the Crowhurst Recreation Ground and very eerie it sounds too! Their sound is produced from two large vocal sacs at the side of the mouth and as you walk along wondering from which direction the raucous laughter is coming you will suddenly hear the plop as the large frog jumps into the water. There have been mixed reviews on the deleterious effect of the invasion of these Happy Hungarians as they prefer to breed in dykes and ditches not normally chosen by our native amphibians. However, they are voracious predators and the Herpetofauna societies strongly advise against further spread throughout the UK.

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Where does this leave our little Reserve in the fight for the conservation of our native species with all these foreigners knocking on the door ready to eat their younglings? Back to my school days when my venerable teachers used to produce large bowls of Tapioca pudding at lunch time; known (behind their backs) as frog spawn to those of us not reared on a post war diet! It was the sight of large clumps of spawn in our pleasingly full pond that had me reminiscing as well as reassuring me that it is Rana temporaria, our Common Frog, that rules in Quarry Wood.

TQW May 10 frogspawn

The Reserve is stunning at the moment. Tadpoles are wriggling within the jelly-like masses of spawn, and newts can be seen hanging motionless just below the surface of the water as if they have been suspended in obsidian. I had the pleasure of watching a Grass Snake swimming through the Duck Weed leaving a trail I would have sworn was made by a small water bird if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

The Bluebells, Spotted Orchids and Wild Garlic are all appearing together this year and our Ladies of the Wood, the Silver Birch, are resplendent in their fresh green leaves atop gleaming trunks. The birds are busy feeding, nest building and singing for all the world to hear. So, plenty to smile about, but no raucous laughter please!

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…Bunda recountered the legend of the great frog migration and the deadly raiders who preyed on it. It was a bleak epic, misty with images of meres, windswept willows, swampy hollows, spires of distant parishes beckoning.
Marshworld, A. R. Lloyd

As always, put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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Image 2: Frogspawn! by Sarah, used under Creative Commons License 2.0


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