Operation Newt

Here's a palmate newt I photographed earlier.

A palmate newt, Lissotriton helvetica, I photographed a few years ago.

During a week of beautiful starry evenings – Venus has been low in Western sky, as bright as I’ve  ever seen her- we’ve been busy, once again, rescuing toads from local roads.  Tawny Owls have been active in the wood, the males doing their honeyed fluting ‘wooo-oooo-oooo’ calls and a female, quite nearby, emitting loud volleys of what sounded to our human ears like razor sharp curses – K-WICK -K-WICK -kkkkkk-splutter-hiss- K-WIIICK  K-WIIIICK.

This year we were delighted to discover a mass gathering of palmate newts in progress -over a hundred and forty in three consecutive nights- along the edge of a lane we’ve walked down for many years without noticing more than a few.  Sadly, this year, the lane has been resurfaced, and in the process all the ivy and most of the moss on a six foot high dry stone wall has been removed.  Because of this, they (and the toads who hibernate along the lane using holes in the wall) had no cover.

We were unsure what to do at first, but eventually decided to relocate them to the top of the wall amongst the leaves in the wood above, at two points where streams come down.  On the third night my partner found two newts that had managed to climb about a metre up the wall and saw one of them fall back down.  We concluded that they must have been using the ivy to climb the wall on the way to their pond, and that lifting them to the top -picking them up gently by the tail seemed to work well- was the best option.

There were always one or two bird’s nests in that ivy, and, of course, the late flowers are important for red admiral butterflies.  Hopefully the message will eventually get through that ivy doesn’t harm walls and is ecologically valuable.

I’ve long been impressed by the sheer perseverance, not to mention navigation skills, of the toads who make the long journey up to the local ponds, but these little newts are only about three inches long.  We saw one striding purposefully up the road!  Amazing.

And I prefer the feel of them.  We usually encourage amphibians into yogurt pots or plant pots, so there’s no need to hold them for long, but many people are squeamish about picking them up. (if you do, you should either use gloves, or wash your hands afterwards -the places they frequent are often fouled!).  Although I’ve become quite fond of toads and feel protective of them, I’ve never quite got used to holding their cold, damp, knobbly, muscular, bodies.  And as for frogs!  I found a large frog sitting in the middle of the road the other night when both of my pots had newts and toads in (frogs and toads don’t get on), so there was no option but to handle her.  How can I put this?  It was a bit like picking up a squishy bag of wriggling water with legs.  Very other-than-human.  Quite primeval.  Perhaps this is why so many drivers seem unconcerned about squashing frogs and toads?

B.T. 9/4/15.

Palmate Newt Note:  Palmates prefer shallow upland, woodland, or heathland ponds on acidic soils.   The males develop black webs on their hind feet in the breeding season, along with a short filament at the end of the tail, and have plain rather than spotty undersides.  In the U.K, unlike other amphibians, there’s no legal obligation to record numbers of smooth and palmate newts under biodiversity action plans – but ARC (Amphibian and Reptile Conservarion) and ARG (Amphibian and Reptile Groups)  have been organising Great Easter Newt Hunts to monitor their populations.