After the February snows, spring in the Claylands is suddenly everywhere, from the white blackthorn flowers and primroses to a chorus of bird song every morning. Inspired by the season, I have been venturing out on mild evenings to visit local ponds – in the shallows at their edges lurk miniature dragons.
From spring until early summer, great crested newts make their way to these ponds to breed, but identifying them can be tricky. For a start, only the males have crests and only in the breeding season; although it looks impressive when they are in water, out on land the crest is barely visible. Confusingly, male common newts also have a crest, but theirs runs in an unbroken line from the back of the head to the tip of the tail. In contrast, the crest of a great crested newt has a noticeable gap at the top of the tail and the tail itself has a wide silver-blue stripe on the side. Both male and female great cresteds can grow up to 17cm long, and underwater, both can look greyish, much like the smaller common newts do. On land, great cresteds are black, with white pimples that give them their other name - ‘warty newt’. Underneath, they have bright yellow or orange bellies striped with black and, just like our fingerprints or the stripes of a tiger, each newt has its own unique pattern of markings.
Like other pond wildlife, like frogs and dragonflies, newts thrive where there is a network of ponds connected by rough grass, arable field margins or hedgerows. This might be why the Claylands of Norfolk and Suffolk are one of the best places in the UK for great cresteds, although the species has declined in recent years in the face of disease, development and a lack of pond management. The good news is that academic research has shown how well the newts bounce back when ponds are well cared for and such ponds act as important stepping stones across the landscape for many other creatures too.
Careful management follows the same guidelines for farm, village and garden ponds of any size – keep the pond open and sunny on the south side if possible, have gently sloping banks and carry out work in autumn, when it will have less impact on wildlife. A few logs nearby are useful for hibernation and pond plants such as water forget-me-not or water mint are useful, as female newts lay eggs on the underneath of a leaf, then fold it over with their back legs, tucking the egg in where predators can’t reach it. I never open them up, for that would harm the egg, but often the best sign of newts in a pond is a series of neatly folded over leaves.
I first encountered great crested newts in my teens and soon after obtained the license needed to survey them. Every spring since, these miniature dragons have been a great source of joy to me – even when I find them in the woodshed or hiding under pots in the garden.