How to watch newts

In spring, newts start to return to garden ponds to breed. Now is a great time to watch their fascinating behaviour.

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How to watch newts article page

As winter ends, newts start to return to garden ponds to breed - so now is the time to watch them.

In spring, as strong winds and rainfall decline, the water becomes a lot clearer but aquatic vegetation is still relatively sparse, so April is the ideal month to watch newts mating and do a count.

 

HOW TO IDENTIFY NEWTS:
 
  • Three newts are native to the UK: the palmate newt, which is patchily distributed in England and more common in Scotland and Wales, the smooth (also known as the common) newt, which is widely distributed, and the great crested newt, which is most abundant in lowland England but rare in the south-west and upland areas.
     
  • The palmate newt is the smallest of our native species, up to 9.5cm long. It is yellowish or pale brown, with spotting on the belly. During the breeding season, the male has a smooth crest with a conspicuous filament at the end of his tail.
     
  • The smooth newt has more spots on its belly. The male’s crest is serrated and the female’s throat is spotted. They grow up to 11cm long.
     
  • The great crested newt is 15cm long, dark or black above, with white stippling on its flanks and a yellow or orange belly with dark spots. Breeding males have a conspicuous spiky crest.
 
WHEN TO WATCH NEWTS:
 
  • Soon after dark on a warm, still evening. Newts can be seen during the day, but are more active at night.
     
  • Use a powerful torch to scan the pond edge and the bottom and edges of any dense vegetation in the water. Don’t use too large a spotlight as this could cause disturbance.
  • You’ll probably only see a small proportion of newts, but if you do several counts before the vegetation grows too thick, you’ll get an idea of relative abundance.
 
WHERE DO NEWTS GO FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR?
 
  • Newts leave their breeding ponds during late spring and summer, though some great crested newts may still be in ponds in the autumn.
     
  • On land, they are found in dense vegetation, under stones and logs or even in mouse holes and other crevices.
     
  • On land, their colours are dull, with crests absent in males. The skin of smooth and palmate newts becomes dry and velvety (so they can be mistaken for lizards), and moist and black in great crested newts.

 

NEWT BEHAVIOUR TO WATCH OUT FOR:

 
Predation
  • Newts are voracious predators. During the day, they may grab damselflies laying eggs and pull them under water before eating them. They also actively hunt aquatic prey, such as frog tadpoles.
 
Courtship
  • Male palmate and smooth newts pursue females then display by fanning their tails parallel to their bodies to waft pheromones. A receptive female approaches the male. He turns around, and she touches his tail with her nose. He then deposits a spermatophore (a sac containing his sperm), which she picks up with her everted cloaca (sex organ).
  • Great crested newts have a similar display, but the male arches his back upwards, keeping his forefeet on the ground. He then beats his tail in the direction of the female.

 

Egg-laying

  • Females of all three species wrap their eggs individually in the leaves of water plants using their hind feet.
 
HOW CAN I GET NEWTS IN MY POND?
 
  • Garden ponds are normally colonised naturally. If not, a few adult newts can be introduced from another local garden pond in March or April. It is best to repeat this over consecutive years.
  • Great crested newts do less well in garden ponds. You need a license from Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage to transfer great crested newts from one pond to another.
  • Only introduce newts to ponds without fish, as they are voracious predators of newt tadpoles.
  • Never introduce non-native species. Alpine newts are now found in Britain, as are Italian crested newts, which are very similar to, and hybridise with, great crested newts.
  • Natural England publishes two free leaflets on ponds and amphibians: call 01733 455100 for more information.

 

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