Identification

In the UK we have three species of newt, any of which may be associated with gardens. They are all amphibians with elongated bodies and tails.

Common newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)

Also known as the smooth newt due to its smooth skin. These are slender looking animals, with a pale brown to olive green colour and an orange belly. They are generally covered in black spots, although the intensity of the spots varies and is more obvious in males. The throats of both sexes are pale coloured with black spots. During the breeding season the male develops a prominent, wavy crest from head to tail.

Palmate newt (Triturus helveticus)

Very similar to common newts in most respects, the most obvious distinguishing feature is that the throats of palmate newts do not have spots. During the breeding season it is much easier to tell the males of the two species apart, as the palmate newts develop a much smaller crest, which is not jagged like that of the common newt.

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus)

These are much larger and chunkier looking than either the common or palmate newts. They are also distinguished by their warty skin, and their dark colour, with even darker spots which often make them look almost black. The underside is yellow or orange, with black markings. During the breeding season males develop a large, jagged crest, giving the species its name.

The tadpoles of the three species are difficult to tell apart, although great crested newt tadpoles are likely to be larger. They can be distinguished from frog and toad tadpoles by their paler colour and the presence of feathery gills. Sometimes people mistake newts for lizards, however they are very different animals; one easy way to tell them apart is that newts have moister skin with no scales, whereas lizard skin will be dry and scaly.

Size

Common and palmate newts are similarly sized, although common newts are generally slightly larger. Palmate newts may grow up to 10cm (4in) long (body and tail) while common newts may reach 11cm (4 1/2in). Great-crested newts are noticeably larger, reaching up to 17cm (7in) in total length.

Distribution

Aptly, common newts are the most abundant newts in the UK, widespread across England and parts of Scotland and Wales. They are also the only species of newts to be found in Ireland. Palmate newts are also quite common, especially in areas where common newts are less frequent such as Scotland, Wales and Devon and Cornwall. Great crested newts are far more rare and localised, although quite widely distributed, particularly in England.

Status

All of our newts are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, prohibiting trade in any of the three species. Declines have been observed in all three species, probably a result of the loss of many ponds across the UK. Common and palmate newts remain quite common and are not considered under threat at present so are not listed by the IUCN. Great crested newts are categorised as 'lower risk'. In the UK great crested newts are quite rare due to population declines, and they are heavily protected under law, making it illegal to harm or kill them, disturb their habitat at all, or even handle them without a licence. They are a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, aiming to maintain, enhance and restore populations.

Habitat preference

All of our newts leave hibernation in February or March, returning to ponds for breeding. Weedy ponds without fish are favoured. Weeds provide refuge for newts as well as providing egg-laying locations - on the undersides of leaves. The distribution of palmate newts seems to be influenced by a preference for shallow, soft water pools on acid soils. For palmate newts and great crested newts it is also important to have undisturbed terrestrial habitat around the ponds, providing refuge and good feeding sites. Common newts seem less concerned by the quality of the surrounding habitat.

Common newts are the most terrestrial of the three species, often being found far from water during the summer, when the breeding season is over. Palmate newts also spend much of the summer in terrestrial habitats. Great crested newts spend most of their time around ponds, although a lot of this will be spent on the surrounding land rather than in the water. Outside of the breeding season all three newt species are nocturnal, taking refuge in damp environments such as burrows, compost heaps or under stones during the day. These are also prime hibernation sites for the winter months.

Where to find them in the garden

During the breeding season the pond is the obvious place. To attract newts you will probably need a pond with plenty of aquatic vegetation, providing egg laying sites, and no fish, preventing predation on both the adult newts and their tadpoles. Look for leaves that appear to have been folded over, as this is the technique newts use to protect their eggs. The best time to look is at night. Shine a torch on the water in the early spring and you may observe courtship displays, particularly impressive in great crested newts.

In summer and early autumn newts may roam the garden at night, looking for food. During the winter be careful if disturbing logs, leaf piles, compost heaps, etc. as these may be hiding hibernating newts.

Role in the garden

All three species feed mostly on invertebrates, either aquatic or terrestrial. They can be effective at keeping down populations of pest species such as slugs and snails. Great crested newts can take larger prey, occasionally even feeding on the tadpoles and adults of frogs and the other newt species.

Newts are also a good food source for many species such as grass snakes and birds. The tadpoles provide food for larger aquatic invertebrates, and other amphibian species.