In Search of the Great Crested Newt
People associate Chester Zoo with exotic species not realising we also work with local endangered wildlife such as dormice and sand lizards, as well as rare tree species such as the black poplar.
The zoo is currently managing on-site populations of great crested newts (Triturus cristatus), the biggest and rarest of our three native newt species, which is strictly protected by law.
Zoo staff member Lynsey Jones got involved with the project working alongside local ecological consultants; who have a licence from Natural England to trap and relocate newts to special protected areas during building work.This is part of preparation for construction of the zoo’s exciting new Islands project due to start later in the summer. Once Islands is complete the newts will be able to move back into the area.
Here is Lynsey’s account of what happened.
A quick check of our kit confirmed we were ready to go. I was excited but also a little nervous about my first try looking for great crested newts. You know you’re in no ordinary office job when one day you are merrily writing funding bids for Chester Zoo and the next you’re out in a field, wellies on, searching for this protected species.
I volunteered to help out with the relocation of the newts as I’d done small mammal trapping before and figured that this would be easier as there would be no shrews to bite me this time!
The word trap does sound quite painful but the traps are simply buckets sunk into the ground waiting to catch the newts returning to ponds to breed. There is a nice bit of moss at the bottom, as well as some water and a stick leading out of the trap so any mammals that accidentally end up in the trap can escape. The traps are checked every day.
The early start couldn’t dampen our spirits as it was a glorious sunny morning on my first session. Armed with buckets, my colleagues Cat, Becca and I started looking in each trap under the moss and in the water for signs of life.
After checking over 100 traps the only things I had found were lots of spiders and worms and I was beginning to think I had forgotten the training we’d been given and was doing it all wrong. Then, on turning over one piece of moss I saw a bright flash of orange and was very excited to finally find a newt!
I knew straight away it wasn’t a great crested newt as my newt didn’t have their distinctive warty texture, but with the help of ecologist Adam, we deduced it was a male smooth newt. More smooth newts followed in successive traps and when compared side by side it was quite easy to tell the different genders, especially as the females are now full of eggs so look quite swollen.
The smooth newts were taken to their safe haven habitat and off we went again searching more traps. Sadly that was all the newt action I got that day, though Becca and Cat were far more successful and found a few of the ‘Cresties’. It was great to finally see some and Adam pointed out their interesting smell but warned us that their skin is poisonous to predators, making me very glad I had gloves on!
After three hours of bending down checking traps my back and legs were aching and I now have a new-found respect for all conservationists who do survey and trapping work like this on a regular basis. I really enjoyed my first experience of ‘newting’ and am looking forward to volunteering again and hopefully finding great crested newts myself next time.
There will be many weeks of trapping ahead to move the newts so I will get plenty of opportunity and I am so pleased to be able to do something practical to help just one of the many conservation projects the zoo is involved with.
I am Lynsey Jones and I Act for Wildlife.