Going Round in Circles
Scientists remain baffled by the mysterious circles appearing in cornfields in southern England. First noted in 1980, the phenomenon, in which circular areas of corn are flattened, is increasing, not only in the number of circles appearing but in the complexity of patterns they form.
They began again in May 1988. the circular patterns of disturbance which have been turning up in crop fields, mainly in southern England, since at least 1980. To some local farmers- Lt-Cdr. Henry Bruce, for example, who farms near Winchester- they now seem as regular as the cuckoo, as predictable (and exasperating) as untimely frost. To others who are not so regularly haunted, these mysterious circles have come as a great surprise. On a farm near Yatesbury in Wiltshire four were discovered in a field of barley, shortly before combining last year.
All farmers, of course, are familiar with the damage done to standing crops by wind, rain, summer whirlwinds and thoughtless visitors. The pliable crops to
to which we give the generic name of corn are particularly vulnerable: and it cannot be a coincidence that the disturbances with which this article deals have occurred mainly in cornfields and mostly between May and September, when bad weather does most damage to such crops. But weather and mankind tend to leave ragged patches of no particular shape, not precisely defined areas of flattened crops, swirled into nearly perfect circles and looking as if a giant biscuit-cutter has been used to make them. Still less do we expect complex patterns of circles.
But this is what has been happening since 1980. In that year, single circles, each about 60ft in diameter, were found in three fields of grain near Westbury. They were reported in the Wiltshire Times, and two were carefully surveyed. Writing in his internationally respected Journal of Meteorology, Dr G. T. Meaden of Bradford-on-Avon concluded that we might be witnessing the effects of a kind of summer whirlwind; but nothing like it seems to have come to scientific attention before.
In 1981 a row of three circles was found in a field near Winchester, the central one about 60ft in diameter, the other two about 25ft each. Suspicion was briefly directed at Army helicopters, but careful enquiries ruled that out.
Since then the phenomenon has blossomed. Not only are more of these disturbances (beautiful to behold though expensive for the unfortunate farmer), appearing each year but the patterns into which they fall are also becoming more elaborate. As well as single circles of several sizes, there are doublets and triplets of circles, some of the triplets being laid out in a triangle.
There have been a number of quintuplets-a large central circle surrounded by four smaller ones, regularly placed. There have been quadruplets, and one or two irregular "swarms". Most surprising of all have been the ringed circles -simple circles contained within a ring or even two rings of disturbance.
In all these complex arrangements there are interesting combinations of the "swirl" of the grain-for example, a central circle swirled clock wise but surrounded by a ring in which the grain lies anti-clockwise. More than 400 circles have been reported since 1980, and more than a dozen different patterns have been recorded, 1988 being perhaps the most remarkable year so far.
The highlight was the discovery on July 15 of a quintuplet of circles in a field just across the A4 from the foot of Silbury Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire. This was followed by the appearance of a second quintuplet about 10 days later, followed a week after that by three simple circles, bringing the total to 13 in this unusually troubled field (which lies in the full gaze of one of the busiest roads in Wiltshire).
During the same summer, and also near Avebury, a swarm of 13 circles turned up in the area of Yatesbury: and quintuplets were found on Allington Down and near Beckhampton, both in Wiltshire.
Elsewhere, that haunted field of Lt. Cdr. Bruce's near Winchester suffered first a triplet of circles and then a striking "double-ringer ", the traces of which could still be clearly seen after combining. There were occurrences farther afield, too, not only in Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire but also in Leicestershire (one) and Suffolk (one), and two or three of them have exhibited patterns that have not been seen before.
The most determined drive towards a solution to the puzzle has been made by Dr. Meaden, whose series of articles in the Journal of Meteorology from 1981 to date are classics of meticulous observation. We owe it to Dr Meaden, who has examined more than 300 of the 400 or so circles so far reported, that not only helicopters but also hoaxers must be ruled out in the great majority of cases, and he is searching for an explanation in meteorological terms. His careful scientific reasoning can be followed in the Journal of Meteorology, obtainable from him at 54 Frome Road, Bradford-on-Avon. Wiltshire BA 15 1 LD (£1.60 per month, inclusive of postage).
Other, wilder, guesses abound. The western counties of England, where these things have mainly been observed so far, are engagingly haunted territory, rich in henges and stone circles, steeped in romantic legends, crisscrossed by supposed "ley lines", haunted by ufologists (if not UFOs), redolent of some of the best folk-tales outside the Celtic borders. It would have been astounding if we had not had some theories of a far stranger kind than atmospheric physics can offer. (A bibliography is available, free, from me, c/o COUNTRY LIFE.)
At the other end of the spectrum, down-to-earth respondents to the many articles which have appeared in the national and local press have offered a range of earth-bound hypotheses: mating hedgehogs; vixens making nests for their young; the summer rituals of the rural British; the effects of a virulent fungus (possessing geometrical tendencies on a large scale); and military experiments.
The only certainty at present is that the phenomenon exists and will doubtless continue to surprise us. Any opinions, photographs and factual reports (obtained without further disturbing the unfortunate farmers who suffer these things) will be gratefully received and passed on immediately to experts. Particularly welcome would be well-authenticated reports from earlier than 1980 and from areas outside the West Country. Circular Evidence by Colin Andrews and Pat Delgado is to be published in June by Bloomsbury Press.
Photographs: J, 2, the author; 3, G. T. Meaden.