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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The arrival of Great Crested Newts!

Over the weekend I was out with Flo my dog and walking back through the garden, I stopped by the pond and made a mental note that I should keep an eye on it over next few weeks to see when the first Great Crested Newts arrive.
As I was standing there, a small circular ripple broke the surface and there was the silvery flick of the tail as a large male Great Crested Newt descended to the depths to hide under the leaf litter on the bottom.
I was surprised to see it in the pond as it is still relatively cold and, following the winter we have had, I thought they may take their time coming out of hibernation. During the winter when we are tucked up in front of the fire, the Great Crested Newts have the same idea and are deep underground or have found a nice insulated heap of wood or bit of deep leaf litter in which to conserve energy through the snow and frosty months. As the first signs of spring arrive, the Great Crested Newts start to emerge and set out to find their nearest body of water to prepare for the breeding season. The full grown males are normally first into the ponds to start to set up a courtship area, normally just under the surface of the pond. The male’s crest on its back starts to grow in readiness for the breeding season, this is how they got their name as they are the largest of any newt found in Europe, males can reach 110-120mm in length and have a prehistoric looking jagged crest on their back, much more pronounced than that of the small male of the Smooth Newts. Other distinctive identification marks are the silvery stripe running down the side of their broad tail and yellowy orange under-belly. The females lack the crest and the silvery tail stripe but still have the orange belly and are large in comparison with other newts, measuring 90-100mm in length.
The females arrive at the breeding pond a bit later on; experts believe they may hunt on land before breeding so they are in full strength for egg production. Newts will hunt on land for the majority of the year; long grass, wet leaf litter, scrub and woodland with good floor covering are their preferred hunting habitats. They are prolific predators, feeding on worms, slugs, spiders and larvae - basically anything soft and smaller than them that crawls or wriggles!    
March is the month that we would expect to see both males and females in the breeding ponds. They will then stay and feed in the pond, only leaving to find another pond close by once competition for breeding becomes too much. Toad and Frog tadpoles are early season prey but any other fresh water invertebrates such as water lice, fresh water shrimps, fly larvae etc make a meal for a Great Crested Newt.
The main breeding period is April through to May but newts can be seen in the water from February to September. The males find a suitable courtship territory usually in shallow water down to one metre deep. Males are competitive and sometimes mimic females by flattening their crest and misleading other males, to take their attention away and steal their courtship area, but large males will defend a good site. They attract females towards them by doing a courtship dance. There is a particular order of events before fertilisation take place. As a female moves into a male’s area he will try and impress her by arching his back to show how large and fat a body he has by the brightness and size of his orange under belly, this is showing his strength but he uses his tail and the silvery stripe as a lure to attract her more, slowly wafting or fanning the tail in the view of the female. The female will show how well he is doing by touching his tail with her nose. As he fans his tail, he is also releasing pheromones towards her nose to entice her even closer and so he leads her off to prepare for fertilisation. As the female follows him, the male will deposit a small white mass of sperm on the pond floor and by maintaining his courtship dance the female follows his signal and moves over the sperm. The female picks the sperm jelly up in her vent and fertilisation takes place internally and the male’s job is done.
The female then heads off to lay her eggs singly. She finds an area of soft aquatic vegetation. Submerged water mint or water forget-me-not are preferred but any soft leaf plant under the surface will do. Using her back legs, she grips the vegetation and secrets sticky mucus from a gland that holds the leaves together to create an envelope in which she lays the single egg. A female will lay up to 250 eggs in one season and up to 10 a night. The leaf envelope protects the egg from disturbance and predation by other newts and predator beetles. Later in the breeding season, depending on the health of the pond and the amount of suitable vegetation for egg laying, the females may start to lay eggs on old leaf litter or on other plant material and you may be able to see the small white eggs on stems and other leaves close to the surface of your garden ponds if you look carefully.
Hatching rates depend on the water temperature. If conditions are right, they can hatch in two weeks but in shaded or not very newt-friendly ponds, it can take up to three times as long. However, due to chromosome abnormalities, only 50% of all eggs laid actually hatch. The lucky baby newtoids develop through a number of stages (it gets a bit technical but they have 9 growth stages) and they do not leave the safety of the pond until they are about 18 weeks old and have grown into mini newts. They keep on growing for a couple of years, reaching sexual maturity at two years old for females and 4 years old for males. In this period of development, they forage on land and travel to find new breeding ponds away from their place of birth. Newts use long grass, hedgerows and gardens as corridors for food and habitat until they find a pond suitable for breeding in. This is why it is important to keep any size pond in the best condition you can for aquatic wildlife, as you never know when the local Great Crested Newt scouts may find it and colonise it. They may be in your pond already, you may have not have seen them yet but a Great Crested Newt can move about 500m a year in the hunt for new breeding sites so keep an eye out for them over the next few months.
So what makes a good health aquatic wildlife pond, I hear you ask? Well, you will have to come back and find that out. I will make it my next Blog entry but I should really go do some farm work before Dad returns from his District Council work!!!   BWB

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