Great Crested Newt Identification
In Britain, there are three species of newt, great crested, smooth and palmate. The Great Crested Newt is significantly larger than the other two species with the largest females growing up to 16cm. Great crested newts can be found across the UK although it occurs less frequently in the West. They spend much of the year on land, however, towards the end of winter adult newts return to their aquatic habitats to breed.
Both males and females are mainly black with warty skin. The head and sides have small white speckles. During the breeding season, males have a jagged crest which is absent in females. Out of the water the crest flops over so the males can appear like females. The underside is orange with black spots. On females, the orange colouration continues along the underside of the tail. Males have no orange underside on the tail and instead have a white/silvery stripe on the sides. Newly metamorphosed great crested newts are like smaller versions of the adults and are unmistakable compared to smooth and palmate newts. Smooth news is sometimes mistaken for great crested newts, however, they are much smaller and the crest runs unbroken along the body and tail. The great crested newt crest has a break in it at the base of the tail and is more jagged.
Great crested newt eggs are whitish or very light yellow and 5mm in diameter. Smooth and palmate newt eggs are smaller at about 3mm and less bright and browner in colour. Smooth and palmate newt eggs look identical.
The larva of the great crested newt (also referred to as an ‘Eft‘) is much larger than those of smooth or palmate newts. Efts have large external gills, a tail featuring a crest and a long tail filament at the end of the tail. However, be aware, the tail filaments can be nibbled off by predators so may be absent!
Read on for a monthly summary of Great Crested Newt activity throughout the calendar year!
October to February is the main overwintering hibernation period and this occurs on land. Timing can vary depending on the temperature and weather during that year. For example, newts usually come out of hibernation when temperatures reach over 5oC, so if it’s a little chillier than normal they may take longer to emerge. Examples of newt hibernation sites include under logs, piles of leaves and holes in the ground.
Mass Migration for Breeding
March is the main month where Great Crested Newts will start to move from their terrestrial hibernation sites and start their migration to their aquatic habitats. Great crested newts prefer ponds with a neutral pH, usually preferring larger ponds or small lakes with no fish or waterfowl. Often great crested newts can be found in old quarries or even garden ponds. They often occur together with smooth newts.
During their aquatic phase, great crested newts will begin their breeding behaviour which includes an elaborate courtship display. Courtship occurs at night in a clear area at the bottom of a pond, preferably in the shallows. Firstly the male swims near the female and may nudge her whilst swimming around her. He flashes his tail which features the prominent silver stripe. The male also stands on his front legs in front of a female with an arched back while he waves his tail around. If the female is receptive, the male transfers a spermatophore. A spermatophore is a gelatinous jelly cone with a sperm cap deposited by a male during courtship and picked up by the cloacal lips of the female. This can often be seen during torchlight surveys.
March to June is the main period for eggs to be laid, with April and May important months. Females will lay between 200- 300 eggs in total in the water, usually 2-3 at a time. Using her hind legs, the female will wrap the eggs individually in leaves found in the pond or overhanging vegetation. The appearance of vegetation showing a characteristic “concertina” effect is a good indication of the presence of this species having wrapped eggs within the vegetation. Wrapping the eggs is thought to protect the eggs from UV damage and predation.
After the breeding and egg laying comes to an end in June, adult great crested newts leave their breeding ponds in July and again begin a terrestrial phase, not returning to their ponds to breed again until the following year.
Limbs develop at around week 6 (forelimbs before hind limbs). After 4 weeks the eggs hatch as tadpoles and after a further 3-4 months, they develop into juveniles capable of leaving the water. At this time, the young newts will spend 1-3 years on land until they become sexually mature.
July to September: Metamorphosis is completed within 4-5 months which results in darker individuals with black spotting. Now they are ready to leave the water in October for winter hibernation. However, late-laid eggs will sometimes overwinter in the ponds as larva.
Great crested newts and their habitats are fully protected by the Habitats Regulations and partially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). It is an offence to kill, capture, or disturb them, or to damage or destroy their ponds. Surveying and mitigation for Great Crested Newts are overseen by a strict licensing procedure administered by Natural Resources Wales and Natural England. A licence is required if disturbance of great crested newts or damage to their habitat is likely to occur as a result of development or other works.
The legal protection is due to rapid population declines, largely because of a reduction in suitable habitat. Habitat loss has often been a result of agricultural intensification and a reduction in the number of suitable breeding ponds.
Our licensed great crested newt specialists are experienced in undertaking surveys for great crested newts and other protected species, as well as European Protected Species licensing, mitigation design and implementation.