Country diary: tantric embraces and nuptial pads – the secrets of frog sex revealed | World news

The week-long blast of cold Siberian air had left me wondering: what about the frogs? In recent years I’ve noticed that the places where I used to find them have gradually dwindled. Would this late winter make things worse? In early March, in the mild air that followed, I checked a pond that would ordinarily be heaving with scores of loved-up frogs, males croaking as night fell. This year: nothing.

Garden ponds are increasingly important for the nation’s amphibians, and a friend in Bamford keeps a close eye on his. Year after year, frogs have returned on the first day of March to begin mating. This year they didn’t show until the 12th, and with another freeze to come.

When I got there, the first flurries of snow were settling on the trees and the milky clouds were thick with it. This wasn’t cooling the frogs’ ardour. Already there were bubbles of frogspawn in one corner of the pond. In the middle, just below the surface, a male and a female were locked in amplexus, a coupling that can last for days as the male waits to fertilise the eggs when they are laid.

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Getting a grip: males have nuptial pads that help them to hold on during amplexus, a coupling that can last for days as the male waits for the female to lay her eggs. Photograph: John Beatty

Unusually, these ones were face on; the male is most commonly on the female’s back, gripping with his arms just under her armpits. And while males are a little smaller than females, this one seemed considerably so. I wondered how all this would affect his chances of adding to the population. Yet he clasped his mate tightly, froggy lips pursed in a determined line, as his hind legs kicked at another male trying to join the party from below.

The spurned male swam over towards me, planted his front legs on the edge of the pond and looked up. It was a little unnerving: frustrated males have been seen trying to get amorous with bits of wood and fish. But it did give me a great view of his toes and his nuptial pads, which improve grip during mating. There are glands underneath these pads, but what their secretions do is yet to be determined. Frog sex does have a little mystery left.

  • Kinder Scout: The People’s Mountain, by Ed Douglas and John Beatty, was published this month (Vertebrate Publishing, £19.95). To order a copy at a special price go to guardianbookshop.com
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‘The spurned male swam over towards me, planted his front legs on the edge of the pond and looked up. It was a little unnerving: frustrated males have been seen trying to get amorous with bits of wood and fish.’ Photograph: John Beatty