PETER FROST finds the nearest thing to a dragon in his local pond.
The mild wet winter we have had has been really good for populations of native amphibians. Local ponds are full of frogs, toads and hatching spawn. And now the dragons are also appearing in my local pond.
As the weather warms up the black beasts with their fire bellies and their darting tongues with be doing their curious mating dance among the reeds and lily pads.
I lie on the side of the pond and quietly watch these rare and heavily protected animals.
The creature I’m talking about is also known as the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) but to me they will always be dragons. They might only be six or seven inches long but close up they are as impressive as any dragon in a story book.
Years ago, as a young boy I kept them as pets in a fish tank. We know better now and today this particular newt is one of the most protected animals in Britain and Europe.
This is the biggest and least common of the three newts found in the British Isles.
Another similar amphibian is the smooth or common newt (Lissotriton vulgaris but still listed in many books asTriturus vulgaris). This species is found throughout Britain and is the only newt species to be found in Ireland.
Britain’s other small brown newt is the Palmate newt (Triturus helveticus). It is a little smaller than the Smooth Newt, rarely reaching three inches (6cm).
The Palmate Newt has a definite preference for shallow ponds on acid soils. It is therefore most commonly found on heath-land in the south and west, and in the north, on moorland and bogs.
A good field guide and many web sites will have pictures to help you recognise the three species.
Since the war, populations of great crested newts have declined in most of Europe including in England, Wales and Scotland. Now it is heavily protected by law.
Lie down alongside me beside the pond and we’ll see if we can spot them. Keep your head down for we mustn’t disturb them.
The newts have dark grey-brown backs and flanks, and are covered with darker-coloured spots so they appear almost black. Their undersides are either bright yellow or orange-coloured and are covered in large, black blotches. Real experts can recognise individual newts by the unique blotch patterns on their undersides.
Only the males have a spectacular jagged crest during the breeding season. This runs along their backs. A separate smoother edged crest runs above and below their tails.
Females have no crest, but have a yellow-orange stripe along the lower edge of their tails and often an orange stripe along backs and tails. The newts normally live on land, but take to ponds to breed.
Look there they are. The larger male is performing his courtship display, it’s a kind of dance. He deposits a small packet of sperm in the path of the female.
Then he swims sideways in front of her to gently encourage her into a position where the packet will be pressed against and picked up by her cloaca – her sexual opening. It’s sex Jim, but not how we know it.
Once fertilised the female can start to lay two or three eggs a day. She will keep laying for as long as four months until 200 to 300 eggs have been laid.
The eggs are laid on submerged aquatic plants, each carefully wrapped in a leaf.
The larvae or efts (above) hatch after about three weeks, and then live in the pond as aquatic predators. The newts will have chosen a pond with no fish as fish eat the elfs.
After metamorphosis into air-breathing baby newts at about four months old, they move on to dry land until they are old enough to breed in two or three years time.
From October to March, adult newts hibernate under logs and stones or in the mud at the bottom of their breeding ponds.
The newts normally return to the same breeding site each year, and can live as long as 25 years, although up to about 10 years is more usual.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 2 May 2014.