Great Crested Newts Get Active
The great British winter is nearly over, which means amphibian species are starting to get ‘busy’ in ponds around the UK. This includes the rare and protected great crested newt, which breed in ponds between mid-March to mid-June. Great crested newts are fully protected under the UK and European law. It is an offence to kill, capture, or disturb them, or to damage or destroy their ponds or the adjoining terrestrial habitats.
If you are planning to develop a site that has ponds or water bodies on it then you may need to undertake a great crested newt survey to assess whether the pond is used by this species for breeding. Now is the time to start planning these surveys as they can only be undertaken between March and June when great crested newts are present in ponds. It is possible to undertake terrestrial surveys outside of this season, using drift fencing and pitfall traps, this will not be sufficient to confirm whether a pond is used by breeding great crested newt.
There are six main survey methods used to record the presence of Great Crested Newts. However, you will need to hold a survey licence for all of these activities:
- Bottle Trapping
- Egg Searches
- Natural Refugia Searches
- Test for DNA Traces in Water
Bottle traps are made of empty 2-litre bottles which have the top third/quarter cut off, the tops are inverted into the bottom section of the bottle. This creates a funnel with a narrow bottleneck to encourage newts to enter the bottle. Once inside they are unable to find their way back out again. Two holes are made, so that garden canes or similar can be inserted through the bottle traps; the canes are then pushed into the pond to secure them in place.
The best time to set out bottle traps is in the evening. It is safer to put out bottle traps out in daylight as working around water can be dangerous at night. The traps are checked early the next morning, no more than 12 hours after setting them. If the morning is going to be warm, it is best to get to the site earlier so that anything that has been caught doesn’t get too hot.
Bottle trapping surveys must not be undertaken if the overnight temperature is below 5 degrees centigrade. Similarly, the survey is generally called off if there is heavy rain as there is less chance of catching newts and it is difficult to torch the pond (see below).
Undertaking these surveys requires a special licence, without one, you are not permitted to interfere with, trap or pick up great crested newts.
This involves visiting the great crested newt pond after dark and shining a powerful torch into the water to see great crested newts below the surface. It is advised to use a 1 million candle power torch as other beams are not bright enough to penetrate into deeper water. Newts and many other aquatic invertebrates are nocturnal, so you can often see some amazing nature activities while torching for great crested newts!
In our opinion, netting isn’t always the best method for establishing the presence of great crested newts. After all of the surveys we have carried out over the past seasons, we very rarely catch newts through the netting. Ecologists should be cautious not to harm the great crested newts and netting is often seen as invasive and causing an unnecessary disturbance. We don’t tend to use netting as one of our main methods, but it can be used if other methods are not possible. Netting can be done either at night or in the morning. Wide sweeps are made around the pond edge, near vegetation where possible, and the net is inspected after every few sweeps for newts or larva.
Part of the great crested newt survey involves checking the aquatic vegetation for newt eggs. A leaf containing a newts’ egg is very distinctive. The female newts lay an egg before using their back feet to fold the leaf over it to protect the egg. The egg itself acts as a glue to stick the folded leaf down.
Natural Refugia Searches
This method is similar to that used in reptile surveys. Squares of roofing felt, or corrugated tin is laid in suitable habitat around the pond, and checked in the morning or late evening to see if there is anything hiding underneath. Once again, we personally tend not to use this method as much.
Licence and Recording
The methods detailed above must only be carried out by suitably qualified ecologists holding a great crested newt survey licence. However, if you would like to get involved in finding pond life in your garden, we would recommend the torching survey method. This is suitable for everyone. Remember to be careful not to interfere with the pond life unless you are experienced. If you do find any pond life such as great crested newts, you can record it on your local authority record centre websites such as SEWBREC, BIS, Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre, Herefordshire Biological Records Centre, West Wales Biodiversity Information Centre. Details of local authority record centres can be found on the National Biodiversity Network website.
Test for DNA Traces in Water
A new(ish!) survey technique for detecting the presence of great crested newt eDNA in waterbodies has recently become available. Under the new technique, samples of pond water are taken and analysed for traces of DNA which are released by great crested newts (for example from their skin, faeces, mucus, eggs). Testing of this technique has shown that a single water sample taken at any time during the newt breeding season (late April to June) has over a 99% success rate of detecting newts.
Great crested newts feed on a range of aquatic invertebrates but occasionally tackle large prey items such as adult smooth newts and large dragonflies. They are mainly active at night, spending the day at the bottom of the ponds or hidden in vegetation. Eggs are usually laid around February or March. Great crested newts leave the water in August and September; their behaviour during their period on land is poorly understood.
Great Crested Newt Range
The great crested newt is widespread throughout northern and Central Europe extending east to the Ural Mountains in Russia. The species has a wide distribution in Britain, but is absent from Cornwall, Devon and parts of Wales and Scotland and is generally uncommon.
Great Crested Newt Habitat
Inhabiting a wide range of habitats, including farmland, woods, grasslands, dunes, quarries, industrial and “brown-field” sites, the great crested newt favours large ponds with abundant weeds and no fish. The habitat structure within the site such as hedgerows, varied topography and the availability of refuges in which the individuals can hide is very important and can determine whether the species can occupy a site or not. Occasionally the great crested newt also uses garden ponds and natural springs. The condition of land between occupied sites is an important factor, as many newt populations persist as metapopulations – a series of local populations between which individuals migrate. If there is little connectivity between patches of suitable habitat, migration will be unlikely.
Great Crested Newt Threats
The decline of the great crested newt population is due to a number of factors, including a large-scale loss of breeding ponds. Intensification of agriculture has resulted in many farm ponds becoming redundant, leading to neglect and a decline in the sustainability of the surrounding habitat. Many new ponds that would otherwise be suitable for the great crested newt are stocked with fish which predate on newt eggs and larvae. Ponds that survive in agricultural land often become polluted with pesticides and fertilisers.
Great Crested Newt Conservation
The great crested newt is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). The species action plan aims to maintain and enhance current populations with a target of the restoration of populations to at least 100 sites. A number of publications on this species have been produced; “Great Crested Newt Mitigation Guidelines” is targeted at developers and those involved in land-use changes. Froglife has published “The Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook.”
Facts You May “Newt” Know!
- The great crested newt is Britain’s largest amphibian, it can grow twice as big as other newts – up to 18cm long and live up to 15 years.
- The body is generally dark brown to black in colour with a warty appearance. This gives the species its other common name, the warty newt.
- Females tend to be longer than males.
- Male Smooth Newts have a smaller crest to display to females, whilst Palmate males have palmed feet and a whip at the end of the tail.
- Female newts lay one egg at a time on a specifically selected piece of pond plant. She sniffs the leaf to make sure it has the right cellulose amount and then after laying one egg, closes the leaf around it with her back legs and glues it shut over the egg.
- Newts are predators of other pond animals. Great Crested Newts can eat Smooth Newts and Tadpoles.
- When newts come out of the water after breeding they can travel up to 1km to look for food such as worms and beetles. They live in damp habitats on land.
- Newts hibernate in winter, usually under logs and stones and in rubble piles. Some individuals occasionally spend the winter at the bottom of the ponds.
- The main predators of young newts and the eggs (and of most other pond life) are fish. Larger predators such as foxes, grass snakes and herons eat the adults.
- Many newts produce toxins in their skin secretions as a defence mechanism against predators.
- Newts have the ability to regenerate limbs, eyes, spinal cords, hearts, intestines, and upper and lower jaws!
Our staff are fully-licensed great crested newt specialists and we frequently undertake bottle-trapping, egg-searching, netting and torch surveys to inspect ponds for the presence of great crested newt. We are experienced in European Protected Species licence applications, as well as mitigation design and implementation (which will be required if great crested newt are found on the site).
To find out what great crested newts get up to throughout the year, click here.