by Richard Jones

Inside the chow mein box, curled up in some soil is a tiny newtlet, or is it a newtling? Anyway, a baby newt.

Baby newt in the palm of a handSaturday afternoon and the doorbell rings. It's the neighbours. They haven't come round to complain about me noisily chasing nearly four-year-old up and down the lawn; they have a prize to show. I immediately recognize the plastic container as one of those from the local Chinese takeaway; I also use them for 'show and tell' sessions. They've found a 'lizardy' thing whilst digging up the end of the garden, and wonder what it is.

Inside the chow mein box, curled up in some soil is a tiny newtlet, or is it a newtling? Anyway, a baby newt. This is fantastic. It's only 35mm long, shrivelled and wrinkled and barely moving.  It might be one of the offspring that I spotted last summer in our small pond, that has waddled off only half a dozen metres to a quiet spot near the fence.

The main concern is what to do with it. The answer is put it back in a similar spot on the loose damp soil, cover it up again with a piece of wood or a rock, and let it be. Newts reach sexual maturity at about three years, so it will not need to return to the water until March 2011 at the earliest. In the meantime it will come out each night from about March to October and prowl about hunting bugs, slugs and any other small creeping things it can get its jaws around.

I always get slightly irritated when I read one of the kids' story books, in which someone discovers a frog or toad in the garden and their subsequent quest to find a suitable aquatic home for its release. Amphibians only go into water to breed in spring. Most of the rest of the time they try to get away from the water, which attracts herons and other predators, so the last thing they want is to be dumped back in it at some inappropriate time of the year.

Two newtsThe dried out wrinkly skin is fine too. It's their normal costume. These other two, pictured left, were photographed in the middle of an oak woodland in June a few years ago. They were a bit larger and might have returned to the pond of their birth the following March, but they were quite happy in the leaf litter where I found them.

The clue to these animals' double lives is in their name — amphibian comes from the Greek root amphi, meaning 'on both sides', and bios meaning 'life'; they live quite happily on both sides, in water and on land. Ambidextrous and ambiguous share similar derivations, but I'm going to leave the subject of left- or right-handedness in newts until I've done a bit more research.

PS. While typing this I hear a loud plaintiff yowling from just outside the back door. I peer out through the glass, expecting to find one of our cats, and one of the neighbours', head to head, tail and hackles up, bleating at each other in top voice, but can't see anything. So I step outside and am met with a caterwauling that could break breeze blocks. I can't believe it — the cat is locked in the guinea-pig hutch. Stupid beast. How did it get in there? Then it dawns on me. The pig had been out on the lawn all day, until the rain and hail about 4 o'clock and I threw him back in. The cat must have been asleep on the hay when the hutch-owner returned to find his sleeping quarters invaded by uninvited lodger. The guinea-pig is unharmed, despite his rodent evolutionary history, but I can't get the image out of my mind. Nor the idea that piggish thoughts were probably along the lines of  "it is nice to have guests once in a while, but I wish he'd go home now, I'd like to get to bed."

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Talkback: Newts
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Gardeners' World Web User 11/03/2009 at 19:56

hiya im newish to gardening trying to pick up a few tips along the way by watching gardening progroms and picking at your experts brains, ive been working on my mother in laws garden and unlike your nieghbours friendly newt all i seemed to find is buried tins and rats i was relaying her patio and found loads of rats and rat runs under there and in the rose corner . will they cause havoc on the roots of the rose bushes or will they be ok ,and is there a way i can keep them out of her garden without putting out poison,traps or using these ultrasonic deterants as she hasnt the funds for a outside power point , all i can think about is putting low down barbed wire and hiding it by growing clematis up it but i dont think thats very granchild friendly ha ha ha.

Gardeners' World Web User 12/03/2009 at 19:34

The Great Crested Newt. It's the most powerful creature in the UK, it can stop new roads, new homes, new airport runways being built and even get on television if one is killed. ;)

Gardeners' World Web User 12/03/2009 at 23:01

and people who live in areas where Great Crested Newts are found often overlook how they've disappeared from so many other areas!

Gardeners' World Web User 13/03/2009 at 03:06

I am fairly lucky as I live in an area that has many streams ,but then they built the dreaded Motor way and ruined the prospective homes for frogs and newts, but we do still have a few callers even so and slow worms frequent the garden and hide under whatever they can find, as for rats and this is for Michael you must get rid of them they are vermin germs abound and if you have a pond they will eat your fish and pollute the water, don't leave any food adound if you feed the birds take anything in at night, and hang feeders on metal poles and grease the pole so the rat can't climb it as it surely will.

Gardeners' World Web User 13/03/2009 at 13:35

It amazed me how newts appeared in my garden pond in my last home. It had only been filled and planted for about two weeks when I wandered out to have a look and got really excited to see two. I later found out that the builder next door had rescued some from a customer's swimming pool, put them in his pond and they presumably came under the fence and into mine. The population seemed to explode. I found baby ones under rocks and adults in bags of compost I'd been using. I found the best way to see them was to go out at night and direct a torch into the water. Once question..I had lots of frogs until the newts arrived, and then lots of newts but no frogs. I know that newts eat tadpoles, but would they eat that many?

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