Why Devon’s newts need our love

Palmate newts are the commonest of the three species here in the county. Photo: Getty Images/Stockph

Palmate newts are the commonest of the three species here in the county. Photo: Getty Images/Stockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Slug devouring newts should be welcomed to our gardens, says wildlife writer James Chubb

It would seem that our Prime Minister’s strategy for clawing the economy back out of the Covid fiscal trough is to “build, build, build”.

Now, I’m not an economist so forgive me this preamble, but that seems logical enough on the surface. But when he went on to suggest the barrier to such infrastructure commitment is the “newt counters” then my heart sank. 

Species protection against habitat destruction, regardless of reason for the loss, has become more important over the last 30 years not less, and with 15% of all species in the UK under threat of extinction - not scarcity, but extinction - then blaming “newt counting” as the barrier to our monetary recovery is not a helpful thing to do, regardless of its potential attention-diverting bluster.

As I said, I’m no economist, so it’s there that we leave cash flow woes and instead head off into the wonderful Devon countryside for the true content of these column inches. And what better group of animals to focus on this month than newts?!

Let’s start at the top. Great crested newts are our largest and most vulnerable British species, of international significance. They are also the species Prime Minister Johnson alludes to with his quippery. However, they deserve such stringent levels of protection wholeheartedly following dramatic contractions of its European distribution.

A large amphibian measuring up to 17cm in length, with its dark warty skin giving way to a bright vivid stomach pattern and, in the spring breeding season, the male newt grows an elaborate frilly crest on its head, back and tail...this is a seriously impressive animal. And great crested newts are very rare in Devon, largely due to our climate.

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Whilst it varies between species, newts spend a great deal of their adult life out of water. However, regardless of species, all of them need to return to water to breed. Unlike frogs and toads, which produce clumps or strings of spawn, newts lay eggs singularly, with the female wrapping each one carefully with her hind feet, in a leaf or reed stem under the water.

Great crested newts tend to prefer seasonal ponds that dry out towards the end of the summer – removing any long-standing predators from the water. Here in Devon we are too wet to have such regular features and it is therefore a scarcity here.

Read more: Discover how you can help save Devon’s butterflies .

Despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, great crested newts remain highly protected and so if you have a population you know about in a pond near you, please cherish it and recognise that you have something very, very precious on a county, national and international level.

At the other end of the spectrum, our commonest newt is the palmate newt, so-called because of the fingered build of the feet, with males developing black foot webbing during the breeding season.

Now, as this is Devon, there’s got to be a twist and for this species the twist is that nationally palmate newts are less common than the smooth newt. But here in Devon, it’s the other way around.

By far our smaller species, palmate newts struggle to reach anything more than 8 or 9cm, even in a large adult male. They have a smooth skin and no crest, although the male does possess a whip-like end to the tail during breeding season. They are a dull fawn colour with dry skin when out of breeding condition. But, when they return to water, they develop a bold pattern with spotted flanks and tricolour skin!

The third and final UK species of newt - and one that you will be quite fortunate to have in your pond at home - is the smooth newt. Looking like a slightly smaller, slightly smoother version of the great crested newt, smooth newts have a dull green pattern above, bright orange stomach with bold black spots and are possibly my favourite of the three UK species, regardless of not being the rarest.

All newts are insectivorous, feasting on a variety of slugs, invertebrates and creepy crawlies and this makes them the ideal garden guests to help in a natural garden pest control.

Digging a garden pond is possibly the easiest way to attract wildlife to your home and something you can undertake at any time of the year. So, this August, if you’ve got a spare weekend why not roll up your sleeves get yourself several square metres of pond liner and start digging?!

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