As children we used to roam free across the largely unspoiled wilderness adjoining the eastern side of Norwich. There one day, by the edge of one of many natural ponds dotted across the landscape, we came upon a pair of dragons. These 10cm creatures, sporting a blaze of bright orange on their bellies and a magnificent crest along their tail,
somehow took on gigantic proportions in our impressionable young minds. Frightened to touch them (you never know how sharp their teeth might be), we crouched there wondering what on earth we had discovered. I’m sure the poor little amphibians – almost certainly a pair of smooth newts – were far more concerned about us than we were of them, and after a few minutes standoff they edged their way slowly to the edge of the pond, slipped into the water and were lost to view.
On the whole, newts have had a bad press over the ages and were considered to be things of evil and dread. In days gone by they were believed to deliberately crawl into people’s mouths when asleep and thereby kill them. Likewise, illnesses in cattle were blamed on these harmless creatures and their dwelling places polluted with lime. Shakespeare himself seems to jump on the bandwagon: who has not heard the mantra ‘eye of newt, toe of frog...’ but the Bard was innocent in his portrayal of the amphibian as part of a witches brew; ‘eye of newt’, an old English term, actually refers to mustard seed.
In order to thrive, newts need undisturbed, unpolluted ponds where they can breed and feed in peace. The habitat surrounding the pond is also of importance to provide cover and corridors through which they can move in safety. In this regard commons are great places for newts, especially those dotted around South and Mid Norfolk where clusters of ponds surrounded by rough grassland and scrub provide an ideal habitat. These ponds, some of which will have
In order to thrive, newts need undisturbed, unpolluted ponds where they can breed and feed in peace
been created as a result of industrial activity such as digging for clay, will be full of natural plants like water mint and water forget-me-not which provide perfect egg laying conditions. Ponds joined by hedges and undisturbed grassland on such commons are especially important for great crested newts, a mobile species that needs more than one pond in order for colonies to survive. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife in Common
project can provide advice on the best way to manage such ponds on your local common to provide optimum conditions for newts and other aquatic life.
I live quite close to my childhood haunts and despite the area subject to our youthful exploits being long since covered in concrete, with its myriad ponds drained and filled with spoil (it’s still going on an alarming rate), smooth newts continue to be a widespread and common species hereabouts and across the county. I have two ponds in my garden, but of all the creatures that dwell in my mini water world, the newts are the most difficult to observe. Unlike the rumbustious frogs or the darting colourful dragonflies, newts keep a low profile. To assess their numbers I Instead either go out on a spring evening with a torch when they are more active and show up well near the surface, or sit quietly during the day watching for surreptitious movement in the shallows. With luck I sometimes see brightly coloured males, those with the orange underbelly and spotted throats, sparring over the attention of the dowdy, pale green-grey female. Sometimes I have been fortunate enough to observe a female laying eggs on submerged vegetation. She will very slowly and purposefully deposit a single jelly-covered egg on a plant, wrapping the frond around it with her hind legs.
On summer pond dipping evenings with the local Beaver Scouts, we sometimes find young newts, or efts as they are called, complete with feathery gills. These quite distinctive larvae, will eventually absorb their gills and leave the sanctuary of the pond to seek shelter in a dry nook where they can hunt for small invertebrates and complete their
growth to adulthood. And this is a surprising fact about newts; they actually spend a large proportion of their lives away from water, under logs or stones. They will also spend the winter in a state of torpor in just these kind of places, emerging in the spring to head back to water to breed.
Of the two other species of newt present in the UK, the best known is the great crested newt, a symbol of conservation action and an altogether quite impressive beast, albeit more localised and a touch more fussy. These animals reach 15cm in length and are generally dark in colour with a blotchy, warty skin. These ‘warts’ can have white tips giving an overall spotted appearance. They will occupy natural and artificial sites, but prefer fish free larger ponds which do not silt up. Great crested newts have suffered declines due to habitat loss and fragmentation and they are afforded full legal protection. The third and perhaps least known and encountered species is the palmate newt, so called because the males develop a black webbing on their hind feet during the breeding season. Palmate newts are quite similar to smooth newts but are less colourful and lack spots on their throats. They prefer shallow ponds with more acidic waters such as those found on sandy heathland or commons
Newts are known to have inhabited the earth for over 40 million years. With greater understanding and empathy for our natural world we can all help them survive and live alongside us through ages to come, allowing our children, and their children in turn to wonder at the miniature dragons in our midst.