Know your newts!

A bit of background about newts

There are three species of newt native to the UK and they will be heading back to garden ponds around now, if they’re not already there!

Adult newts actually spend most of their time out of ponds, although never far away. They forage in undergrowth where they eat a diet mainly consisting of invertebrates including worms and slugs making them another useful addition to the pest-control team. They also eat smaller aquatic invertebrates when in the ponds, such as water lice and insect larvae.

They return to the ponds to breed from around March – May, when the temperatures warm up crucially at night when they are most active. Here the males and females meet up and breed, then the female lays eggs which she wraps up individually in aquatic leaves, unlike frogs which create the familiar clusters of spawn, or toads which lay their eggs in strings. If you look carefully at water plants with small leaves, such as water crowfoot, you might see the leaves curled over and stuck down but don’t open them out as the eggs will be very susceptible to damage or predation. Adding aquatic plants to your pond is an excellent way to improve the suitability for newts of all species!

The eggs grow and hatch into efts around 2-3 weeks later. They have frilly gills which allow them to breathe underwater – it is another 10 weeks or so before they lose these and complete their development into minature air-breathing adults. It will take around 3 years before the juveniles reach sexual maturity.

In the meantime, the adults leave the ponds again in June/July, although they may return to forage. They are most active at night and in the daytime they hide under suitable refugia which keep them cool and damp, such as beneath stones or logs.

In the winter, when the temperatures drop, they find more permanent places to hibernate. They will remain inactive until the spring comes and the temperatures warm up once more. At this point, they will make their way back to the ponds to reproduce again.

We certainly get smooth newts in Grantham – we have a pair in our garden pond each spring – and the larger great crested newt has been recorded in Manthorpe and Muston (according the NBM gateway) and may well be present much closer to town. The palmate newt, our third species, is recorded in Nottingham and down the A1 at Market Overton but there are no records for Grantham.

Below is a brief description of each species to help you identify any you might come across:

Great-crested newt (Triturus cristatus)

This is our largest newt species and grows to a size of 15cm. Only the males have the crest and even then only during the breeding season. They also have a bright yellow/orange and black patterened belly which is like a fingerprint in that it can be used to tell individuals apart.

Despite the name, the crest is not the way to tell these apart from the smooth newts as they also have both the crest and the fiery patterned belly. Once you have seen a few, especially side by side, you will probably not mix them up again as the great crested is a clearly more susbtantial specimen with even juveniles being larger than adult smooth newts. However, the best diagnostic is the texture of the skin – an older English name, less commonly used now, is the warty newt. The skin is not covered with warts, clearly, but the dimpled texture gives it a rough look – see photo below.

Males in breeding condition also have a streak of white along their tail which, as well as the crests, helps distinguish them from the females.

The great crested newt is protected in the UK under the Habitats Regulations – this is European level legislation to conserve endangered species making it illegal to kill, injure or capture them; disturb them in any way; damage or destroy their habitat or possess them or sell or trade them in any way.

The photograph below was taken during some survey work I have been doing recently which involved moving the newts from one location to another – I do have a great crested newt handling licence to allow me to do this!

Great crested newt

Smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)

The smooth newt is smaller (around 10cm long at most) than the great crested and has smooth skin. Like the great crested, the males have a crest along their back during the breeding season and both sexes have the patterned belly. This is the species which you are most likely to find in your pond – they often swim up to the surface to take a gulp of air during the day, making a distinctive pop noise but a flash of a tail retreating to the depths is often all you see when you try to spot them.

The male has spots almost like a leopard along his upper half whilst the female is usually a more drab by contrast. Their colour varies between individuals – the male is darker and the female is often an olive green/brown.

They also have spots on the underside of their chin – this is one of the key ways in which you can distinguish them from the palmate newt which is really rather similar in other respects.

This photograph was taken of a smooth newt on the same site as the great crested newt pictured above – this is only a juvenile but is similar to an adult female in many respects. For a nice photograph of an adult male, see here.

Juvenile smooth newt

Palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus)

This species is actually not encountered all that often. It is the smallest of all – rarely over 6cm in length. The males have a crest and both sexes have the flame patterned belly. The skin is smooth which, along with the size, distinguishes it from the great crested newt. The best way to tell the palmate newt from the smooth is to look for the patterning under the chin – the palmate newt does not have spots like the smooth newt, rather it is an uniform yellow or pink.

The palmate newt seems to prefer shallow pools in acid conditions – it is frequently found in heathland, moorland and bog habitats rather than garden ponds where most people will encounter newts.

The site I was surveying does not have a palmate population unfortunately, so I do not have a photograph to provide as comparison! However, more info on palmates (including photos) can be found here!

Recording newts

There are several organisations who would be very interested to receive your newt records. The Newt Hunt project is set up by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation along with Amphibian and Reptile Groups (ARG) UK who will use the information for creating a map of newts in gardens. This will help their conservation by giving a better picture of their distribution around the UK and make sure that their presence is known in an area.

They also have an useful page on identification, along with photos of key diagnostic features.


Awakening ladybirds

Anybody who has been out in their garden over this weekend of beautiful spring weather will probably have noticed quite how many ladybirds are waking up and sunning themselves. They have hibernated through the winter, in clusters, but they are spreading around once more.

7-spot ladybirds

The ones photographed here are the commonest UK species – the seven spot ladybird. Their scientific name is another example of a nice agreement between the latin and the common names; Coccinella 7-punctata – punctata meaning a point. Interestingly, the seven-spot ladybird can have between 0 and 9 spots but 7 is the most common.

Ladybirds are useful additions to anybody’s garden – their larvae are voracious predators and be very happy in the greenhouse devouring aphids and other small pests.

7-spot ladybirds

There are 46 different species of ladybird in the UK but you would recognise 26 of them as ladybirds with their distinctive shape and colouration. There are several online guides to the other species including an app for the iPhone. The FSC field sheets are a brilliant handy guide to many common species and habitats and their app includes the ladybird ID guide for free, with the option to buy more ID guides within the app. You can also use the CEH’s online ID tool or a simple sheet showing you the different species from the ladybird survey website.

Harlequin ladybird
Harlequin ladybird

Some species of ladybird are in decline in the UK and experts want to know how much of an impact the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) might be having on the native species. The harlequin is an invasive species from North America and is easily distinguishable from the natives. There are plenty of harlequins around Grantham, including these which woke up on the windowsill in our office. You can record sightings of harlequin ladybirds at this website and help to keep chart the spread of this species.

The UK ladybird survey also welcome records – if you are unsure of your ID, you can send them a digital photograph and this can be used by their experts to determine just which one you have. Their website, with links to recording forms, is here.

Grantham Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine falcons have nested at St Wulfrum’s Church in Grantham for several years now and, once again, you can watch the nest box live on the Lincolnshire Bird Club’s webpage.

So far, there are no eggs laid but there are images of the birds investigating the nesting site throughout March. You can view a live feed of the camera here and a blog updating you on progress in the meantime, because even the most dedicated are bound to miss some of the exciting events.

Peregrine falcons are naturally cliff nesting birds which have taken to nesting on man-made structures such as these. They can now be seen in many places around the country including Derby cathedrel, the university building in Nottingham and even on the Tate Modern in London where the RSPB set up viewing stations with telescopes trained on the action and guides on hand to answer questions. The high, stone and brick built structures providing high platforms are very similar in nature to the cliff faces which they usually habitate. In many ways, they are following the success of feral pigeons a few generations behind – feral pigeons are really rock doves which, like the peregrines, found that the urban environments created by humans provide them with quite a nice facsimilie of the habitat they would usually select. And of course, following the pigeons to the towns and cities means they are following an abundant food supply! Below is an image of a pair of young peregrines in another human-created habitat – in this case a quarry although it is closer to the natural habitat of the birds.

Peregrine falcon young at a quarry nest site
Peregrine falcon young at a quarry nest site

The peregrine’s at St Wulfrum’s first nested on the church in 2007. The nest box was then added to provide them with ideal conditions and they first used it in 2009 when two chicks were successfully raised. Two more fledged in 2010 and three in 2011. There seems to be little activity so far this year but there is still plenty of time – last year the female began to prepare the nest on the 24th of March and, at the moment of writing this, there is a pergrine to be seen on the live camera. In the mean time, the peregrines in Nottingham have four eggs to date and their live camera can be watched here. You can also follow Nottingham Wildlife Trust on twitter for continual updates on their progress.

Peregrine falcon on the nest at St Wulfrum's on Tuesday lunchtime
Peregrine falcon on the nest at St Wulfrum's on Tuesday lunchtime - image taken from Lincolnshire Bird Club peregrine webcam.

There is lots more interesting info on the peregrines at St Wulfrums on the Lincolnshire Bird Club website including details of previous nesting successes and a breakdown of all the prey items which I won’t repeat here. However, the list of prey species (all birds) does make particuarly interesting reading – many are rather more exotic than those you might expect to find in the average Grantham garden including a number of wetland birds such as avocets, golden plovers and black-tailed godwit!

Spring flowers

Spring flowers are beginning to appear everywhere! The weather has turned colder now again but spring is still certainly on the way – here are just a few of the species to be seen around Grantham at the moment, there will be many more to come!

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
This is a typical component of hedgerows throughout the country and there are plenty of examples of it aroung Grantham. Most of them are not yet in flower but this specimen growing on its own beside the river seems to be at the head of the pack! Start looking out for the white patches in the hedgerows around now – blackthorn comes into flower before its leaves unfurl which makes for a beautiful spring sight with a mass of creamy white blooms.

You may know blackthorn as sloe – the small purple plum-like fruits which can be used to make sloe gin, jam and, well, little else. These are generally harvested after the first frost of autumn so it will be a long time before these flowers produce ripe fruits.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Flowering cherry (Prunus spp.)
This is another non-native but very welcome spring flower. There are two native species of cherry tree – wild and bird – but the majority of those you are likely to see around are ornamental varieties. This one is growing on Sandon Road, outside of the construction college but you can see them flowering in gardens and public spaced throughout Grantham, including the town centre.

You might notice how similar the cherry and the blackthorn flowers are – they are in fact in the same genus, the prunus. This genus includes all of the cherries including familiar fruits – cherry of course, apricot, peach and plum, as well as almonds which are effectively the stone you might be familiar with and not, therefore, a true nut.

Cherry blossom viewing is one of the highlights of the year in Japan – they have blossom viewing parties and events and there are even forcasts which predict when the blossom will be in its fullest glory around the country, depending upon geographic location and weather conditions. I’m not aware that this has caught on to the same extant here in Grantham, but the flurry of whites and pinks certainly do cheer up the town as you walk through.

Cherry (Prunus spp.) blossom

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)
One of the most widely recognised spring flowers, these are generally considered to be a naturalised rather than a native species. They are found as natives across Europe and certainly fend for themselves in this country but the first recorded colonies were in the 1770’s *. It is possible that some plants are native however, especially in the south of England, however these on the bank of Grantham College are almost certainly planted. One of the earliest spring flowers, they are probably coming to an end now as the weather begins to warm.

You do get many cultivars and ornamental varieties too – if you want to see a nice display, Easton Walled Gardens, just along the A1 south of Grantham, has a snowdrop week once a year, however you’ll have to wait until next year for the next one!

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria)
This is a small native species in the same family as the buttercup – the Ranunculus family. The small yellow flowers are another characteristic of early spring and grow in abundance due to their habit of spreading by rhizomes as well as seed. They are most apparent on warm sunny days such as this as they are only open during daylight and close up when it is dark or overcast.

They can be found in many places – they are often present in woodlands or along the bases of hedges where they can spread out into adjacent grasslands. They bloom early in the year, preceding the trees coming into leaf – when they grow beneath a wooded canopy, spring is the time when they will get the maximum amount of light. The plant will die back in May and then remain dormant for much of the remainder of the year.

These flowers were growing alongside the snowdrops on the bank of the college on Stonebridge Road.

Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria)

As an extra bonus, which I didn’t even notice until uploading this picture, is a tiny little ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) growing within the celendine patch – see closeup below! You can see where it derives its name from too and, in this case, the latin is a very good reflection of the English. Ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia)Hedera is the ivy family and folia derives from the latin for leaf; hence ivy-leaved. Veronica is the family name of the speedwells.. This species generally flowers in April – May but it must have found particuarly favourable conditions settled in amongst the celendines.

Tiny hazel flowers

If you pass a hazel in the next few weeks, take a closer look. The large dangling catkins are the male flowers and you would be hard pushed to miss them, but in amongst them on the same branches, are the tiny pink female flowers. These really are small – the pink styles in this image are only around 2mm long. These are where the hazel nuts form – it will take around 7 months before they are ripe so note their location ready for the autumn!

Hazel catkins and flowers

The pollen is dispersed by the wind and each individual shrub is self-fertile – that is, if the pollen from the male catkin lands upon one of its own female flowers, the flower will produce a fertile nut which will go on to produce a new shrub, supposing it is not eaten first!

Hazel (Corylus avellana) female flower

Hazels can be found around Grantham – this specimen was from a hedgerow just outside of the town along The Drift but there are a number of lovely coppiced examples at Londonthorpe Woods amongst others.

Hazel (Corylus avellana) female flower