Around for a million years, adapted to land and sea, and with remarkable regenerative powers, the newt is a creature like no other.
I have long been fascinated by newts. If they survive the attentions of their many predators, they may be fairly longlived.
They also have an extraordinary ability to regenerate various parts of their body, if required. With their long fingers and toes, they seem weirdly prehensile; and, as every country child knows, also go through a dramatic metamorphosis.
There are three species of newt in Scotland: the smooth, the palmate and the great crested. The palmate is the commonest type found here.
During the breeding season male palmates develop enlarged feet, like the palms of a hand. They also develop a distinctive filament on the tail. Smooth newts go through a change at breeding time too, developing a crest.
The largest and rarest of the trio is the beautiful great crested newt, which can grow to 16cm in length. It is also called the warty newt thanks to its rough skin. Like the toad, it can secrete toxins to help ward off predators. A Victorian naturalist was brave enough to put one in her mouth as an experiment. It made her froth at the mouth and induced minor convulsions, but she lived to tell the tale.
Great crested newts are inconspicuous, which perhaps explains how the species has managed to survive for millions of years in an unaltered state. During the breeding season, the males look particularly spectacular, turning into mini dragons with impressive jagged crests on both back and tail, and a vibrant orange belly punctuated with dapper black spots.
The females share the belly colours but do not sport the crests. Their breeding display is equally impressive but is seldom seen, involving a water ballet amid a sea of weed where eventually the male deposits a packet of
sperm on the pond bottom, and then guides the female into a position whereby she picks it up, and eggs are fertilised inside her body.
The next stage is just as ingenious: a few hundred eggs are laid singly and she cleverly wraps each in a leaf using her hind legs, before securing it with a specially secreted glue-like substance to stick it down to protect it during development. Close observation may reveal these minute eggs but usually all that indicates their presence at the water’s edge is a neatly
folded-over leaf corner; some eggs may be found among water-weed.
While it is impossible to tell the eggs of smooth and palmate newts apart, those of the great crested are, like the creature itself, considerably larger.
This is a mysterious world of efts (the name for the tiny newts) and metamorphs; pregnant females are descriptively referred to as ‘gravid’.
Once the eft has become a fully grown newt it will return the following spring to its traditional breeding pond to spawn. The metamorphs some times remain in the water over the winter and do not complete their transformation until the next year.
Newts are insectivorous; when water-bound they feast on a range of insects and larvae, blood worms and water fleas; on land they eat soft-bodied insects as well as earthworms and snails. (Newts in turn are hunted by fish, birds and several mammals including otters and foxes.) Great crested newts also consume the young and tadpoles of other newt species.
When newts leave the water after breeding they may travel considerable distances in search of food and usually seek refuge and a safe place to hibernate in a dark, damp spot.
Great crested newts in Europe are under severe threat, and although the UK remains a stronghold for them, the population in Scotland is fragmented and sparse. Because of their rarity and importance, they are recognised as a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data List.
There are some known hotspots in the Moray Firth area and near Inverness, and also in the Central Belt, but the creatures struggle in Scotland not least because they are at the northernmost but also because they prefer less acidic conditions, and require ponds with a neutral pH balance.
Like all reptiles and amphibians, newts are under constant siege from habitat loss and pollution. Migrating frogs and toads in particular also suffer from the salt put down to treat roads in winter – this can cause skin lesions and lead to death.
When Trevor Rose, a design engineer in the oil industry, moved to Scotland from the south of England in 2000 he was in clover as far as reptiles and amphibians were concerned. His first six years were spent in Dumfriesshire, and though he was close to one of Scotland’s only populations of the fabulous natterjack toad, when he moved to Montrose in 2006, he found the surrounding Angus glens even better for a wide range of species, and quickly discovered that Glen Esk was one of the best places of all, particularly for adders.
He established the Friends of Angus Herpetofauna in affiliation with ARG-UK, the national umbrella group for local amphibian and reptile groups, and works tirelessly training volunteers to carry out important surveys, record findings and protect these vulnerable creatures. Trevor and his wife are also foster parents and over the years have cared for children from all walks of life, yet in between he finds time to complete extensive surveys while constantly endeavouring to ease the plight of our beleaguered herpetofauna.
He claims it all stems from his childhood. ‘My passion for reptiles began early when my brother used to bring various creatures home with him – slow worms, frogs, toads and newts. He also had a very beautiful green lizard and I thought this was such a lovely little thing. While he gave it up, my interest simply grew and grew.’
I first came across him in 2011 when I read about his impassioned fight to save an important isolated population of common lizards at Kinnaber Moor, near Montrose. Angus Council was due to construct a new cycle path, part of the Sustrans network across the UK, with no prior knowledge of the lizards’ existence. FAH stepped in just before work was due to commence and managed to preserve some of the existing habitat, create new areas for the lizards and rescue some of them from certain death.
With forthright publicity and the help of volunteers and members of the public, eventually over a hundred people joined together in support of the threatened lizards. The end result was fairly satisfactory and is an achievement Rose, who is quietly spoken and modest, is justly proud of.
‘It was entirely due to our campaigning and mitigation, and the strength of support from the general public that we achieved what we did, and happily just with a little alteration of the path’s siting and less removal of the all-important gorse, the lizards are thriving.
‘We had a mad rush to capture as many as we could to move them from the site. I knew they would eventually return but felt at least if they were out of the way while work was in progress, it would help. The law only protects them against being killed or injured, and not against the destruction of their habitat – rather ridiculous because as a result this means they actually get no protection at all.’
Rose is a man with strong views when it comes to looking after ‘herps’, as their followers refer to them. An interesting theory I heard recently claimed that adder numbers have fallen because there are ‘too many buzzards’ and I asked Rose what he thought about this; we both agreed that nature finds its own balance, and that the idea was unfounded. However, he certainly believes that as well as serious threats to habitat for herpetofauna, releasing vast numbers of non-native pheasants into the British countryside has had a seriously detrimental effect.
‘These birds have origins in Asia and have an inbuilt behaviour whereby they kill snakes and any other native reptiles, and often in large numbers. Young adders, for example, are perfect for pheasants.’
Scotland is fortunate to have such concerned and dedicated individuals as Trevor Rose in its midst for these are creatures that deserve our utmost respect. He is a walking encyclopaedia of practical field knowledge on his subject and his amphibian ambles all around Scotland make him well placed to comment. After a most enjoyable and instructive training day with him, I laughed when I spotted his car number plate as he drove off – FR09 MAD – it does not get much more passionate than that!
See http://groups.arguk.org/fah for more details.
- This feature was originally published in 2014.