Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Season for Newts

Newts at Fairwater Park aka "The Dell."

Great Crested Newt male (Photo: Public Domain)

When I was a boy, as well as tropical fish, stick insects and exotic silk moths I kept as pets, I also used to keep newts. In spring, which was the season for newts, I used to catch them in a large pond in a local park, which was called Fairwater Park, but was referred to by me and my friends as “The Dell.” I always used to wear my Wellingtons for trips to this park and carry a bucket with me, into which I put whatever I caught.

Melissa Houghton taking photos at Fairwater Park pond (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The pond in Fairwater Park was very untended by humans and had large masses of grass growing in it and around the edges, it had willow trees and bushes, and brambles coming right down to the water in some parts. It was wild and how it should be! It had large clumps of bulrushes and much of the water surface was covered in floating leaves of amphibious persicary, broad-leaved pondweed and duckweed.  The pond was basically full of aquatic vegetation with very little open water. It had plenty of brown stinking mud and would ooze methane bubbles when you stepped in it.

Nepa cinerea the Water Scorpion (Photo: Public Domain)

Many species of aquatic life lived in this pond. There were ramshorn snails, water scorpions, water mites, water bugs and diving beetles, pond-skaters, water measurers and water crickets, caddis fly larvae in their cases made from broken bits of vegetation and water snail shells, and medicinal leeches that can suck your blood.

These leeches, by the way, are now a very rare species in Britain. I am pretty sure, without checking current statistics, that many of the other species I have listed have drastically declined in numbers too.

But getting back to Fairwater Park pond, as it once was, it was an ideal habitat for newts. All three species found in Britain bred there. You could find common newts, palmate newts and great crested newts, which last-named species is now endangered, and often gets in news stories because it has been found somewhere that was scheduled for development.   
I used to catch newts, mainly by hand. I would part the weeds, spot a newt and swiftly grab it. I took my captures home and kept them in aquariums I had set up for them. In those days, you could legally catch and keep these amphibians, but this is not the case now, and for good reasons, because there are a lot less newts around now, when compared to the numbers in the UK when I was a boy.

What I loved about newts was their amazing colours. The male common and great crested newts have high frilly crests and underneath their bodies they have orange bellies spotted with black. Palmate newt males have dark webbing on their hind feet that can grow so much that it looks like they have squares of skin around their toes. They also have tiny thin filaments sticking out the end of their tails. I really don’t know why. Female palmate newts look very like female common newts but there is a difference, though it is hard to explain. The female palmates are an olive-brown or dark brown with pale bellies. The common newt females are a different shade of brown and slightly more colourful underneath. Newts have little hands and cute sparkling eyes. They have to swim up to the surface every now and then to take a gulp of air. They are fascinating to watch. The females have no crests and are not colourful like the males, but they have their own charm. They lay their eggs in water plants, carefully wrapping each egg in a leaf.  

Common Newt tadpole (Photo: Charlesjsharp)

I used to enjoy keeping the newt tadpoles too and watching them grow bigger and bigger, and losing their gills to become miniature newts that could leave the water, just like their parents could do. I used to feed my adult newts mostly on very small earthworms and the newt tadpoles fed on daphnia, which are tiny crustaceans, also known as water fleas.

Nodding Burr-marigold (Photo: Public Domain)

Sometimes I found sick newts in the pond. Sometimes they had seeds of the spiky burr-marigold embedded in their mouths. I could sometimes help the newt by prying the seed out but not always. Also some newts had dropsy and their bodies became very swollen so they could not swim properly. They would sadly die but there were plenty more healthy ones.
It used to sadden me, though, seeing what some boys used to do. They would catch great crested newts, which they incorrectly called salamanders, and put them on the grass where they would take turns in throwing knives at the poor amphibians. These boys took pleasure in the suffering they caused the newts and it made me sad but I was too scared to stop them because I knew they would beat me up. I didn’t like a lot of boys. I found them violent and destructive. I much preferred being out in nature on my own or with a few good friends I trusted. Boys I didn’t know, and many boys I did know, I began seeing as a source of potential danger to be avoided. This was to go into my ideas about male humans, so I grew up thinking men and boys were more dangerous than women and girls.

But getting back to the newts, it was many years later and I was in my late teens but still living at home.  I had seen an advert for the Cardiff Naturalists Trust and thought it would be a good idea to get in touch with these people to tell them about the great crested newts, which I knew were very rare. Incidentally, my good friend and fellow author C.J. Stone has also told this story. Anyway, I wrote a letter and sent it to the address of the organisation, and in due course, I received a reply from someone who was in charge, thanking me for my information but saying he had done a “preliminary pond dip” but had found no evidence of great crested newts in the pond, as I had described. He asked if it would be OK if he called on me so I should show him some of these newts and asked me to catch a few. I agreed to this and caught some great crested newts and put them in a bucket. When the man and his wife called at my parents’ house I was all ready to show them I was correct. The man in charge of the Cardiff Naturalists group was amazed but could see for himself that I had some specimens of this species. He asked if we could go up to the pond so I could show him how I caught them. I put my boots on and off we set in his car. When we got to the pond I waded slowly into the water, parted some of the floating grasses and weeds, spotted a newt and grabbed it. “Got one,” I said, as I put the newt into my bucket. “And another,” I added as I caught one more. Within about 10 minutes I had managed to catch several great crested newts and showed the man from the naturalists group how I did it. He was impressed and thanked me again, saying he would see to it that some work was done to make sure the pond was a safe habitat for this rare species of amphibian in future. I was glad I had got in touch with the Cardiff Naturalists and felt proud of my efforts. My attitude was to change drastically though many weeks later when I saw what had been done to the pond in The Dell. Large masses of weeds and grass had been dredged out and thrown on the banks, big spaces of open water had been created, and marginal vegetation had been cut back or destroyed. The pond was no longer wild, like Mother Nature intended. It had been cleaned up and made to fit what people thought it should be like. People like big spaces of water but newts don’t because they can easily be seen by predators.

They like weedy ponds where they can hunt, look for mates, and lay their eggs. I regretted my part in having alerted the local organisation to this, and have carried that regret onward because there were never anywhere near as many newts there after that. In the years that followed further work was done at the pond. Water lilies were planted, a big space of open water was kept that way, a wooden landing stage was erected, so people could look out over the pond more easily, and the grass and plants that grew around the edges were often cut back. Now admittedly the pond looked a lot nicer, more like a pond you might have in a painting or on a postcard perhaps, but a lot of wildlife stayed away, apart from some ducks.

Ducks at The Dell (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Footnote: The above article is taken from an unfinished book of memoirs I started writing. Fortunately in many ways, due to the economic crisis and government cuts, the pond is not being tended to any more and vegetation has returned all around it and in it, as you can see in my photos, which were taken in 2015.

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