Find newts in your garden this spring

Palmate newt found when pond dipping

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Roving Wildlife Reporter, has been finding newts in the garden this week. Newts turn up all over the place, especially in springtime - here's six key facts about them and how to attract them to your garden.

Since newts have massively declined in the wider countryside, our gardens and their ponds have become an important safe haven, and a very good place to find them. As newts are so interesting, I’ve sprinkled a few newt facts through this blog, and added a few useful links too.

Fact #1. A newt is a salamander (how exciting!), belonging to the salamander subfamily Pleurodelinae.

Ponds introduce children to wildlife

Ponds introduce children to wildlife

Yesterday I found several newts that had found their way into a large tub of water by the greenhouse. All were grey-brown palmate newts, looking a bit small and vulnerable with their soft, naked skin, which is why they have to be so secretive. They included three or more almost adult-sized larvae (efts) still with their gills. There must be quite a lot of invertebrate life for them to eat, even in a tub meant mostly as an extra way of collecting rainwater by a water butt.

Fact #2. The palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus) is the least flamboyant of Britain’s three native species. It’s most commonly found in shallow pools on the damp, acidic soils of the south and west and is named for the webbed hind feet developed by the male in the breeding season, along with a low, smooth crest.

Tub of newts by greenhouse

Tub of newts by greenhouse

The best way to see newts in the ‘wild’ is to go out in the evening with a torch. In the dark, the torchlight shines through the still water of your wildlife pond (or tub) rather well. By day, newts are hidden by the glare of sunlight on the surface and they spend more time under cover anyway. The very patient newt watcher can wait for adults to come up for air.

Another way to see newts close up is to go pond dipping, which you can do in your own garden pond. You can see how to pond dip successfully and responsibly, here.

The efts with the gills must have spent all their lives so far inside the tub. To get in and out, the newts have to climb quite a steep ‘escape plank’, but they do seem to be among the Houdinis of the amphibian world...

Fact #3. Newt larvae grow their front legs first, unlike frogs and toads.

This newt was found upstairs in the pet snail's aquarium

This newt was found upstairs in the pet snail's aquarium

Bizarrely, an adult newt turned up in one of our upstairs bedrooms, inside our daughter’s pet giant land snail’s aquarium. The coir we used as substrate had been kept in a sack in the greenhouse (it’s excellent as a peat-free substitute for seed planting).

Fact #4. Newts live and hibernate on land for about seven months of the year, from mid- to late summer through to spring.

Wildlife pond in spring

Wildlife pond in spring

As I write (in late April), most of our garden newts are in the wildlife pond at the bottom of the garden. There, they can eat their fill of tadpoles and creatures such as leeches, freshwater shrimps and small nymphs.

Tadpoles are a major food source in spring, but don’t try and save the lives of those cute, blobby wrigglers by moving newts elsewhere, as disease and invasive plants are spread that way. Frogs and toads lay a large number of eggs precisely because their young have so many predators. Native amphibian populations, having evolved together, balance themselves out, despite boom years when the newts seem to dominate. These are followed by years in which hungry newts decline in numbers and tadpoles can boom once more. Over time, both species continue to survive.

Fact #5. If your garden newts avoid mishaps with cats and garden machinery, plus natural predators such as fish, foxes, hedgehogs, shrews, rats, grass snakes and herons, they can live for up to 15 years.

Young newt

Young newt

As land predators, newts can be useful to gardeners. They stalk or ambush slugs, snails, craneflies and any other invertebrate that they can reel in with their sticky tongues.

How to encourage and care for newts in your garden

As newts use ponds for breeding, a pond – large or small – is an essential requirement. Don’t add fish, for obvious reasons.

Make sure your pond contains water plants with the sort of small, broad leaves that newts can use for wrapping up their individual eggs (they don’t produce large clumps of spawn like frogs, nor strings of spawn like toads). Examples are water forget-me-not, water speedwell and water mint.

Create a safe habitat for your newts during the months they spend dormant or hunting on land: log piles, long grass, rockeries, spaces under sheds and hedges – anywhere that provides damp shelter and hiding places, along with invertebrates for ‘newtrition’ (sorry).

Do your best to make sure there are ways through into other gardens or wild corridors too, as wildlife cannot thrive in small, isolated populations and must be able to enter and leave your garden.

Fact #6. In Cornwall, we are unlikely to see the spotted chins, bright orange colours and wavy crests (in the male) of the smooth newt (Lissotron vulgaris) and extremely unlikely to see the large and striking great crested newt (Triturus cristatus).

Handy links

More information on the palmate newt.

For advice on amphibians in your garden, Cornwall Wildlife Trust-hosted ERCCIS have this resource sheet.

Pond actions for wildlife - how to create a large or mini-pond or a bog garden!

Newt in a puddle in woodland, east Cornwall

Newt in a puddle in woodland, east Cornwall