Although nominally widespread across Britain, over the last 100 years Great Crested Newts have disappeared from many sites right across Europe, mainly as a result of pond loss and intensive agriculture.
In this sense, this iconic species sums up everything that has gone wrong for freshwater wildlife in Britain.
Responding to these losses the Great Crested Newt is now strictly protected under British and European law which makes it an offence to: kill, injure, capture or disturb them; damage or destroy their habitat; and to possess, sell or trade. This law refers to all great crested newt life stages, including eggs.
Growing up to 15cm in length, Great Crested Newts are the heavy weights of the UK’s three native newt species. They appear dark brown or black in colour with a distinct ‘warty’ skin, however, their underside is bright orange with sharply contrasting black blotches, each pattern distinctive to that individual. In the spring, males develop an impressive jagged crest along their back, and a flashy white stripe along the tail. The females are slightly bigger, and lack the crest and the white tail flash of the males, but have a distinctive orange stripe on the underside of their tail.
During April and May the males undertake an elaborate courtship display to try and impress their ladies, with lots of extravagant tail waving. Good open water display sites are hotly contested – one sneaky strategy is for male newts sometimes to mimic females to lure other confused males away from favoured display areas so that they can move in themselves.
After mating, the females lay hundreds of eggs amongst the leaves of pond plants, each egg is surrounded by a jelly capsule and then individually wrapped in a leaf for protection. Great Crested Newt eggs are a creamy white, where the other two species are more gray.
The newt larvae metamorphose from their aquatic larval phase to efts, and begin to emerge from the pond in August, though this process can last for up to two months. It then takes the immature newts between two and four years to reach sexual maturity, an adult newt then living up to 15 years.
As with other newt species, Great Crested Newts come and go from ponds. The adult males arrive at their breeding ponds in the spring, and then start to leave from May onwards – though some may stay until as late as October, and even overwinter in the pond.
By late September, Great Crested Newts are looking for nice sheltered places to hibernate for the winter, including tree roots, burrows, and log or rubble piles. If you have Great Crested Newts in your garden then you can help them by providing some undisturbed hibernation places for them. Hibernation may last from October through to February when the cycle of life starts all over again.
Great crested newts: Educational pond dipping and invertebrate surveys
Pond dipping is a common activity in schools, field study centres and country parks. It can be an excellent way to enthuse and educate people, especially children, about the natural world.
However, a lot of people ask us what they should do if they find Great Crested Newts whilst pond dipping, or suspect that they may be present. Of course, legal protection means it is an offence to capture or disturb Great Crested Newts. However, Natural England is keen to encourage educational pond dipping, and this note sets out how you can do this lawfully, where great crested newts occur.
For more information on pond dipping where Great Crested Newts may be present you can download the full Natural England document here.
There is also a new technical document from Natural England:
NECR080 – Assessing population status of the great crested newt in Great Britain
that can be downloaded from the Natural England web-site