Have I Got Newts For You

A calm Norfolk evening. The sky changing through shades of blue, darkening as the sun disappears below the farming landscape. A bank of cloud is building, and the breeze has a nip to it reminding us that it is not quite summer yet. Just off a main road and near a cluster of barns are two dark ponds. The first has lots of vegetation around its edges and within its dark waters. The second is barer and murkier.

As darkness falls we search the ponds and their surrounds, turning over stones nearby, sweeping a net through the vegetation in the shallow edges, and searching through the blades of green poking up through the dark water. As it gets darker we use flashlights to scan the water itself. All with the aim of finding newts. In particular, great crested newts or evidence of.

The great crested newt is the largest species of newt (a type of amphibian) in the UK and believe it or not, has been around for 40 million years!

Darkness falls and we have had glimpses; an egg characteristically sealed in a folded piece of vegetation, the flash of a body in the torchlight. All signs that the ponds hold these newts. The last task of the evening is to set out a series of bottle traps at the edges of the ponds.

Its then a question of waiting. Back home to bed then.

The following morning, we return. Its sunny, bright and warm. The surrounding fields are alive with bird song. Skylark, chaffinch and yellowhammer song drifts across the warming air and fields.

The task is to lift the bottle traps, carefully checking the water within to see if any newts have made their way in overnight. Many are empty. But in one I can see a small, brownish red, spotty newt. It’s a male smooth newt. Not the target species but a lovely animal to see up close. Gently we pour the water out and the newt falls onto a gloved palm. I take a moment to admire him before releasing him back into the water, where he folds his legs close to his body and swims of in sinuous movement reminiscent of a croc!

Male smooth newt in a bottle trap

He quickly disappears into the dark depths and we continue to check the rest of the bottles. Then finally bingo. A couple more of the traps have newts in and this time they are great crested. They are clearly bigger, darker and more ‘warty’ than the smooth newt. Gently turning them over to double check gender reveals the bright orange belly. These are females with no crest along the back or white flash on the tail.

Female great crested newt

Again we release them back into the water and finish up checking the last few traps.

While the results still need to be collated, the ponds clearly have breeding great crested newts. This survey, both the evening and morning visits, are just one of six that have been made to these two ponds over the last couple of weeks. All together the visits will give an accurate picture of the size of the population utilising the ponds.

Great crested newts are protected under UK and European Law, which means it is an offence to kill, capture or disturb them, or to damage or destroy their ponds or nearby habitat. The surveys I have taken part in have been done with a licenced Ecologist. The works intended at the site will need to be done under a European Protected Species Mitigation licence in order to reduce the impact on the great crested newts breeding in these two ponds.

For me it was a chance to meet this ancient species for the first time.

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