A Good Newts Story

25 March 2020 | Posted in Glenn Norris , Southerham , amphibian
A Good Newts Story
Great Crested Newt © Derek Middleton

By Glenn Norris

Ecologist

The reduction of the commute to a few seconds from the sofa to the kitchen certainly makes pouring a drink immediately after work rather too conveniently easy a process. So, as you do, I've been thinking about certain wildlife that looks like it has been on the drink, long before the working day has ended. 

Anyone who has had the pleasure to see a Wryneck in the hand would surely have thought this bird has eaten a few over-ripe fruits (check out YouTube and you’ll see what I mean), but the animal that comes off worse, unfortunately and unnecessarily, is the humble newt.

Like someone who has had too many G&Ts, the awkward gait of the newt takes it wandering around the British countryside, covering incredible distances. Newts often stay within 65m of their breeding ponds but some Great Crested Newts have been recorded travelling over a 1km from the pond; that’s some effort for an animal that can fit on your hand.

Great Crested Newts are one of three native species to the UK and one of my favourite species to see each year. They are almost twice the size of the smaller Smooth and Palmate Newts, black as charcoal and with the most fantastic orange stripy toes and blotchy belly. The pattern of the blotchy underbelly is unique to each newt and is used by some researchers to identify the movements of specific individuals in and around ponds.

The Land Management Team is based at Southerham Farm Nature Reserve, near the Cuilfail Tunnel in Lewes. At the end of the valley of this reserve lies a dew pond that was restored relatively recently. It now holds water every year and I found out that last year before I joined the Trust, an environmental DNA (skin, faeces etc) test of a water sample found there were traces of Great Crested Newt DNA! This is big news, and I was sceptical. Firstly, eDNA tests have been proven to occasionally throw up a false positive result, for example when birds visit from other ponds that contain newts; secondly, the dew pond is well over 1km from any other waterbody, which is a long way for newts to travel and makes their arrival unlikely; and finally, the terrestrial habitat is chalk downland that is regularly grazed and often lacks enough structure for newts during their terrestrial phase.

So, when newt survey season came around this year, I was desperate to confirm the DNA record. After four unsuccessful visits, I arrived for the fifth thoroughly doubtful of anything but the usual toads. As I slowly dragged in the trap, I saw something large and black flash near the surface before hiding deeper in to the trap. I began to pull more vigorously. Then, another flash, this time a black tail with a distinct silvery smear. Holding my breath and fingers trembling, I emptied the trap into the tray and two of the largest male Great Crested Newts I’ve ever seen slid out. A confirmed record for Southerham Farm, only the fourth of Sussex Wildlife Trust Reserves. These two newts became the fourth amphibian species on the reserve, all recorded in 2020. After a quick record shot, I released them and they swam back to the safe depths of the pond to continue their search of a willing female.

This survey undertaken before the lockdown was instigated and conducted under licence

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