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.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Keeping and Breeding Tropical Fish: From Angelfish to Killies

Angelfish (Photo: Public Domain/Pixabay)

When I was a boy and in my early teens, besides various caterpillars, silk-moths and stick insects, I also had a lot of tropical fish. In fact, I had tanks all around my bedroom. I used to breed many species of fish, including angel fish, keyhole cichlids, golden barbs and paradise fish.

Keyhole Cichlids

Some types of fish eat their eggs and so it was vitally important for me to be able to get the parents out as soon as they had laid their eggs. I used to stay up into the early hours watching for this to happen. My mother used to get annoyed and would tell me I should be asleep because I had school in the morning. I never cared about school because my insects and fish were my world and what was important to me.
It was in my early teens that I really got into keeping tropical fish and had a school friend called Roger Wiggins who used to keep tropicals too. We used to read magazines for aquarists and find out about fish farms in America and read about specialist breeders of difficult species, and we would fantasise about one day running our own tropical fish businesses. By that time I had started selling surplus fish that I had reared in the tropical fish shops in Cardiff, and sometimes I would supply them with bags of water lettuce, a floating plant I used to get so much of it covered the tops of the water in my tanks. They never used to pay me much for the fish and plants but it was a boost to my ego to be able to think I was successful at being a supplier, even if on a really small scale. The men that ran the shops knew that I knew my stuff too. It all appealed to my youthful sense of pride.
Roger and I used to order exotic aquatic plant species from mail order companies too. It was exciting seeing what the plants were actually like and to find out how well we could grow them. Often enough our efforts failed but that did not stop us. I remember being fascinated by the names we read in ads and wondering what these plants would really be like. Some like the aptly named four-leaf clover turned out to be really great and easy to grow aquatic plants but others just withered away.

Four-leafed Clover

I also remember going to Newport to a tropical fish shop in the Pill area of the city. Tachbook Tropicals I think it was. It was worth making this trip by train, not just for a day out, but because for some reason this shop always had fish you could not find in any of the shops in Cardiff. I remember getting an Egyptian mouthbreeder or mouthbrooder and a skunk botia from Newport.

Egyptian Mouthbrooder

The mouthbreeder was a female and I had her for years. Sadly I never managed to get a male and though she used to spawn on her own her efforts were wasted because the unfertilised eggs died and after she realised this she ate them. It was sad seeing this dedicated mother fish with a mouthful of eggs, not able to eat and expecting her eggs to hatch into tiny babies but never have any hatch out. My Auntie Elsie from London who used to often visit used to call this fish “Ugly” but I couldn’t see why. But it was a male I needed and for some reason every time I saw these mouth-breeders for sale there were never any males. There were unexplained mysteries in the tropical fish business. In Cardiff they were never on sale in either sex. I never understood why because it was an interesting fish, easy to keep and in most tropical fish books.

I remember something else that happened that involved my Auntie Elsie and a fish I had at the time. It showed me something about how human opinions can be so very wrong and how animals and plants are built to survive and repair themselves if hurt. I had an upside down catfish.

Upside Down Catfish (Photo: Neale Monks)

These fish are named that way because they do swim upside down. The one I had was a greedy fish and was always on the lookout for more food but one day it had a terrible accident that was to cause it to stop eating. What happened was that for some reason, which I cannot remember, the fish was very alarmed and dived down fast towards the bottom of the tank. In its speed it failed to watch out for a jagged rock and cut its belly open. It was really badly hurt because I could see its innards that spilled out through the cut it sustained. My Auntie saw me upset and asked what was wrong and I told her what happened. She took one look at the catfish and said I should do the right thing, and put it out of its misery, because there was no way it would survive. I didn’t want to kill my fish. I hoped so badly it would get better. I decided to give it a chance, though I could clearly see that the odds were against it pulling through. My catfish retreated to a corner of the tank, stopped eating and swimming about and just stayed there, hanging almost motionless in the corner. The days rolled onward and the fish didn’t die. It didn’t resume its normal lifestyle of swimming around and looking for food but it didn’t die. What happened was a miracle. The guts of the fish were very gradually being pulled back inside its belly, and the skin was closing over. Eventually, after about a week, wound had closed and all was left was a scar. The catfish gradually started to take an interest in life again and moved around in the tank, and most importantly, began eating again. Within a few weeks, it was back to normal and even the scar on its belly vanished. I was so glad I had not listened to Auntie Elsie, and that I had given my fish a chance.

Nothobranchius rachovii male (Photo: Andreas Wretström)

But getting back to my friend Roger and our shared hobby; we had an ongoing mystery. You see, we never saw any killifish for sale, though we read about these unusual fish in books and magazines. Because of their habits of laying eggs that need to be kept semi-dry to replicate the conditions in the wild where ponds dry up, we assumed these species really were so difficult that this is why they were not available in South Wales. These were fish it was probably too hard to keep and breed. This is what we thought was the reason why people do not keep killies. Many years later I was to find out that this assumption was wrong. It was possible to order killifish by post, as eggs or adult fish. Some types were very hard to keep but others were easy. I became a member of the British KIllifish Association in the 1990s. This meant I received the society’s monthly journal and could read the ads and respond. I could order eggs from other members. The killifish eggs were in peat and used to be contained in small plastic containers or in plastic sachets. They could be sent through the mail this way. The excitement came from hatching the tiny fish out and seeing if you could rear them successfully. Some types like the Nothobranchius species were exceedingly colourful with the males having red tails and bright blue bodies. I was successful in breeding and rearing quite a few species, including some of the larger bottom-spawning aphyosemion species, such as the Blue Gularis.

I was proud of my success with these fish. I sold a lot to a local fish shop where I knew the owner Neil. Sadly though he was to tell me that many of them died. I never sold him any more after that. These fish I found easy to keep could not survive in a tank in a shop. perhaps they did need specialist care after all?

I have another fish story I would like to share. I had a pair of some type of mouthbrooding cichlid. I say “some type,” because they were not identified when I bought them and I never did find out what they were. There are a lot of African mouthbreeder cichlids and these were mostly a yellowish colour and it was clear which the male was because he was a lot bigger and he used to dig pits in the gravel, which is something male fish do to attract mates. I also could see that the other was the female because the fish used to breed but sadly, for some reason, I never discovered, they always lost their eggs which failed to hatch. Nevertheless, this pair of fish seemed OK in my community tank and never bothered other fish I had. I mention this because many cichlids are known for being aggressive and cannot be kept with other species. But all of this, I have just told you, is not what this story is about. What I really want to share is what happened when the female fish died. I cannot remember what was wrong with her but I can vividly remember what happened to the male. It was as if he lost his will to live, like a brokenhearted human it seemed he no longer had any reason to be alive without his mate. Now, what you probably don’t know is that there are many fish that are monogamous and faithful to their mates. There are fish that mate for life and are far more loyal to their partners than many married humans can be. Anyway, what happened with my male cichlid, and how I could see he was grieving badly, was that he stopped eating, stopped showing an interest in swimming around the tank, stopped digging in the gravel, and like the upside down catfish I have already told you about, he went into a corner of the tank and just lay on the gravel. After seeing him behave this way for several days I thought he was pining away and would die, but I was wrong. Something amazing happened that showed that fish can respond to humans and that one species can communicate with another.

My friend Sioned used to call at my house on a regular basis. One day she called round and had gone in the kitchen for something, which was where the tank was I had my cichlid in. She asked me what was the matter with my fish. I told her that he was very sad and grieving because his wife had died. I said I thought he would die too because he wasn’t eating. Sioned was horrified and said she was going to see if she could help save him. She started gently tapping on the side of the tank and talking to the fish through the glass. My friend repeated this every time she visited which was every day that week. My heart-broken male cichlid began to respond. He left lying in the corner and would come over to see Sioned through the glass pane. Eventually after a few days he started eating again, and swimming about. He even began digging in the gravel. probably in the hope that his mate would somehow return, or maybe to attract a new mate. This never happened, of course, and I was unable to get any more of this type of fish, though I looked in the local tropical fish shops. As a result of my friend Sioned spending time trying to talk to my male cichlid and succeeding, he went on to live many months more.

Footnote: The story above is taken from an unfinished book of memoirs about nature.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Kenfig Pool and Kenfig Sand Dunes

Kenfig Pool (Photo: Public Domain)

I was thinking about places in the countryside that I remember from my childhood and thought I would like to tell you about Kenfig Pool and the sand dunes there. My parents used to take me to this amazing place when I was a boy. We used to go on lots of days out, visiting the countryside. My dad had a blue Vanguard car and this is what we would go out in. Mum and Dad were always encouraging when it came to my interest in nature and they used to buy me lots of books. I had most of the Observer’s Books.

I had the Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers, and the book on fungi and British birds, and wild animals, and freshwater fish, and even the Observer’s Book of Mosses and Liverworts. That last book was given to me when I was only five, and I know that because it has survived and is at my Dad’s house still, I think, and it is signed to me in the front for my “Fifth birthday.”
Anyway, one place we used to go which I really used to love was Kenfig. It is near Porthcawl but much wilder. There is a big lake called Kenfig Pool and miles and miles of sand dunes.
These dunes have rough paths through them and eventually you can get to a long sandy beach by the sea. It takes well over an hour, as I remember it, to get from the carpark to the beach. But the walk is the real fun of it all. There were so many wild flowers I could look out for and insects and newts and frogs and toads, lizards too.

Kenfig Pool

There were temporary pools that formed in the dunes and they had boggy bits around them with sphagnum moss and bog myrtle. I used to love the smell of marshy ground, especially if there was water mint that added its aroma if you stepped on it or brushed by it as you were walking. In these pools there were newts and water beetles and other water insects. I was always fascinated by water, by ponds, streams and rivers, and rock pools when we went to beaches. I used to wear my Wellingtons so I could investigate the watery places without getting my feet wet, though often I did get water in my boots and my Mum used to get mad at me because of this.
Part of the fascination was I never knew what I would find. I was exploring. It was like it stirred some sort of instinct to hunt for life; I was a hunter-gatherer boy. In those days, I was forever turning stones over, looking under boards and corrugated iron on waste ground, wading around in muddy ponds, seeing what I could catch in rivers and streams, and exploring the railway bank behind where we lived. Nature was my world. It meant much more to me than people and the human world and I hated school.

Viper's Bugloss (Photo: Public Domain)

But getting back to Kenfig, one of the reasons I was so excited by the place was because there were rare wild flowers to be found there. I used to like looking up plants in my wild-flower books. I used to always be on the lookout for new species and hoping I would discover something really rare. Wintergreen, hound’s tongue and many types of orchids were some of the rare plants that grew at Kenfig Dunes. I used to find blue viper’s bugloss and pink centaury and also we used to look out for dewberries, a type of blackberry that grew in the dunes. We used to collect them and take them home so Mum could make pie which we used to have with custard. I used to love eating blackberry pie and custard or just stewed blackberries and custard.
Often I used to go on ahead of my family, or be lagging behind them, as we made our way over the dunes. I was always investigating some marshy ground, turning over any boulders or rubbish I found or searching in the vegetation. I remember there were some parts where you could find common lizards. They would bask on bits of discarded iron sheeting and on boards and other rubbish that littered the dunes even then….this was back in the early 1960s.

Great Green Grasshopper (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

I used to try and spot great green grasshoppers too. These insects are, as their name suggests, very big, the size of locusts. They lived in some parts of the dunes and you could hear them singing but they are really difficult to find. The insects blend in so well with the vegetation and they stop singing as soon as you get anywhere near them. Most frustrating!
Often I found young toads and they seemed happy in the sandy soil. I remember thinking about natterjack toads I had read about in my books. They liked habitats like this but were very rare and didn’t live in South Wales but that didn’t stop me dreaming I would find them there.

Six-Spot Burnet (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

There were lots of butterflies too. Wall butterflies, meadow browns, common blues, small coppers, small heaths and the colourful day-flying moths known as burnet moths. Many of these types of butterfly you hardly ever see in Britain today. It has always depressed me to watch wildlife vanishing. I never thought it would happen when I was younger. I mean, you don’t think about these things. You think everything will always be there somehow.
In spring though it was amazing because that is when there were most wild-flowers in bloom and the ponds were full of water. At this time too, if you happened to get there at the right time, it was possible to see thousands of adult toads making their way to Kenfig Pool. They used to use the lake to breed in and I remember seeing these amphibians all over the ground on the shores of the lake and in the water around the edges. many of them were mated pairs, in what naturalists call amplexus, where the male toad grasps the female with his arms round her and rides on her back.

Common Toad (Photo: Public Domain)

I used to like the idea of how wild it felt once you got away from the road and ‘civilisation.’ It was just miles of sand dunes covered in marram grass and other plants that tolerated the sandy soil, the sky above and hardly a soul ever in sight. Most people stayed in the car-park, few ventured into the dunes and were prepared to make the long trek.
When we were getting near the beach area you could tell. There were visible signs if you knew what to look out for. The sand got more so, less covered in vegetation, and new plants appeared.  The weird and prickly sea holly and sea spurge, food-plant for the rare spurge hawk moth. It was a moth I always hoped to someday see but never did. It is funny how we can live in expectation of some dream coming true, even though it is very much against the odds. It seems easier to do this when you are younger.

Gatekeeper on Sea Holly (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

In this part of Kenfig it was like a zone, a border between the dunes and the beach, a place where different plants would grow. Then there was the top of the beach proper with rotting seaweed, bladderwrack with sandhoppers underneath it. I always used to enjoy moving the weed and seeing the hundreds of little crustaceans jumping about and seeking cover. It fascinated me how they all lived under these piles of seaweed.


So Kenfig was very much a part of my childhood and early teens. I don’t know what it is like today, probably spoiled to some degree. Most of my life and growing up I bore witness to seeing places I loved in the countryside getting ruined. I am sure you know what I mean, I mean watching places get built all over, ponds drained, roads built etc etc. Reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But the wild places are still there in my head, in my memories, and are very much a part of what has made me as I am.

Footnote: This is the slightly edited first chapter of an unpublished book I began writing. More chapters will appear in future blogs.