Bonfires and Wildlife

Where we see a bonfire, wildlife tends to see a home.

In the lead-up to November 5th, lots of people will be building bonfires. Many people have now got the message that hedgehogs may take up residence in these piles, but many other less obtrusive species will also be drawn to them such as reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.
Creating brash piles and log piles is one of the key ways we look to enhance a site for a range of native species. During the cold winter months, our native reptiles and amphibians often seek out places such as this to hibernate until spring, unfortunately just at the time when people are creating bonfires. Many species will see these wood piles as a potential home, unawares that they are crawling into a wicker man which will soon be put to the torch.

The only way you can be sure that you are not endangering the wider range of wildlife who may take up residence in a bonfire, not just the hedgehogs, is to make it just before you light it. This might mean piling the logs and wood nearby in preparation, and then moving them to build the bonfire on the 5th November.


If everybody looked the same…

So I spent a little time today taking portraits of amphibians, as you do… I was translocating great crested newts from a site proposed for development and ended up capturing large numbers of smooth newts and toads as well as the great cresteds. I collected the amphibians together and then took them to the receptor site which had been created to provide them with habitat in the long term. As I went to release them, I was struck by the variety of individuals within the same species.

The variation is probably down to a range of factors such as diet, age, maturity, condition, sex or simply genetic variation; and ranges from obvious differences such as colour down to quite subtle differences in patterning or facial structure.

I took the opportunity to take a few ‘portraits’ to record some of these individual characters. It is a lesson which nature constantly re-iterates – look a little closer and you will always see more than at first meets the eye.

Four portraits of different common toads – Bufo bufo
Four portraits of smooth newt – Triturus vulgaris / Lissotriton vulgaris

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.