By Jess Price
At Halloween, Shakespeare’s infamous spell-casting recipe reminds us of a day when our wildlife faced a whole different set of problems; mainly cauldron-based. Nowadays newts’ main worries are habitat loss, finding a mate and avoiding being eaten by a passing grass snake or bird.
Although they don’t fully hibernate, at this time of year they are starting to look for damp sheltered places where they can hide away during the colder weather.Favourite spots include compost heaps, log piles, stone walls or under tree roots, and they may emerge from time to time to forage in milder spells.
Up to 11 cm long, smooth newts usually have an olive-brown body with a pale orange belly covered with small black spots. These intriguing amphibians generally live on land feeding on slugs, worms and insects until they reach sexual maturity at three years old. Then they will return to a pond in spring to mate. By spring, breeding males will have developed a continuous wavy crest that runs along their body and above and below the tail. This helps them to attract a mate as they waft glandular secretions toward a female by fanning their tails in her direction.
Smooth newts often breed in garden ponds, but can also be found around the edges of lakes and in ditches. They particularly like standing water containing plenty of weeds. Females use submerged pond plants to protect their eggs, using their back feet to fold each egg in an individual leaf. She covers her eggs in a jelly similar to that of frog spawn which helps them to stick to leaves. They can lay up to 300 individual eggs so require lots of pond plants such as water mint and common water-starwort.
The eggs which have survived hatch out into newt tadpoles and spend the summer eating and growing. Newt tadpoles can be recognised by the frilly gills that stick out from behind their heads. Unlike frogs and toads, newts grow their front legs first, and their back legs later. At the end of summer the young newts internalise their gills and emerge from the water. At this stage they are known as efts.