The rare dragon newt is under threat from housing development – best try and spot it while you can, suggests PETER FROST
NEW rules and how they are interpreted by Natural England, Defra and Michael Gove, the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, are making it much easier for builders to disturb and move populations of one of our most exotic wild animals, the rare and threatened great crested newt (Triturus cristatus), also known as the dragon newt.
Perhaps this change of policy is a payback to some of the Tory house builders and developers that he met and begged donations from in his time as shadow minister of housing from 2007 to 2010.
The new guidelines will certainly do nothing to preserve and promote this spectacular but threatened reptile that is such a brave sight in our ponds.
The “dragons” in my local pond arrived late this year. Snow, and weather cold enough to freeze the pond, had delayed their arrival.
Once the weather warmed up the black beasts with their fire bellies and their darting tongues entertained us with their curious mating dance among the reeds and lily pads.
It’s a delight to lie on the side of the pond and quietly watch these rare creatures. They might only be six or seven inches long but close up they are as impressive as any dragon in a story book. Years ago as a young boy I kept them as pets in a fish tank. We know better now and today this particular newt is one of the most protected animals in Britain and Europe.
The great crested is the biggest and least common of the three newts found in the British Isles. Another similar amphibian is the smooth or common newt (Lissotriton vulgaris, but still listed in many books as Triturus vulgaris). This species is found throughout Britain and is the only newt species to be found in Ireland.
It can grow to four inches and is the species most often found in ponds, including garden ponds, during the breeding season between February and June.
Britain’s other small brown newt is the Palmate (Triturus helveticus). It is a little smaller than the Smooth Newt, rarely reaching three inches.
It has a definite preference for shallow ponds on acid soils and is most commonly found on heathland in the south and west and, in the north, on moorland and in bogs.
A good field guide and many websites will have pictures to help you recognise the three species.
Since the war, populations of great crested newts have declined in most of Europe including in Wales and Scotland. Heavily protected by law, it clawed its way back. Now in Gove’s safe hands, who knows its fate.
If you want to identify dragon newts, look for dark grey-brown backs and flanks, and a covering of darker-coloured spots so they appear almost black. Their undersides are either bright yellow or orange-coloured and are covered in large, black blotches. Real experts can recognise individual newts by the unique blotch patterns on their undersides.
Only the males have a spectacular jagged crest, which runs along their backs, during the breeding season. A separate, smoother-edged crest runs above and below their tails.
Females have no crest but have a yellow-orange stripe along the lower edge of their tails and often an orange stripe along their backs and tails.
The newts normally live on land but take to ponds to breed. A larger male performs a spectacular courtship display, a kind of dance during which he deposits a small packet of sperm in the path of the female.
Then he swims sideways in front of her to gently encourage her into a position where the packet will be pressed against her and picked up by her cloaca, her sexual opening. It’s sex, but not as we know it.
Once fertilised, the female can start to lay two or three eggs a day. She will keep laying for as long as four months until 200 to 300 eggs have been laid.
The eggs, each carefully wrapped in a leaf, are laid on submerged aquatic plants. The larvae or efts hatch after about three weeks and then live in the pond as aquatic predators. The newts will have chosen a pond with no fish as they eat the efts.
The latter transform into air-breathing baby newts at about four months old, when they move on to dry land until they are old enough to breed in two or three years’ time.
Throughout October to March, adult newts hibernate under logs and stones or in the mud at the bottom of their breeding ponds.
The newts normally return to the same breeding site each year and can live as long as 25 years, although up to about 10 years is more usual.
If, like me, you like nature a bit more out of the box did you know that many serious Loch Ness Monster hunters believe Nessie is in fact a giant newt or the closely related salamander? It was identified as such as long ago as 1931. The shape was always right until forged pictures started the illusion of the long, dinosaur-like neck.
Both Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders grow to nearly six feet. They love deep, dark waters and are so secretive that they are rarely ever seen. You can make up your own mind.