For regulars I am looking increasingly like a teller of tall tales, but last night I was out newting in Buckinghamshire, and after evening rain everything was dripping and misty. I was looking for inverts on a tall standing beech trunk, upon which were a couple of Hylecoetus dermestoides a red saproxylic beetle which seems to be booming in numbers. But on the opposite side there were 4 Smooth newt efts (last years emergees) climbing straight up the trunk. One was nearly 2m up!! Nearby on the recumbent snapped off upper bole sat a common toad male deep in thought, which had me thinking how had he climbed up onto a 1m high round beech surrounded in rhododendron?? It reminded me of a night in 1990 on the Merseyside sand-dunes when a long drought was ended with heavy rain. That night newts and small toads were seen up amongst bramble and other bushes up to 1.5m off the floor. The draw of moisture seems important, but how delicate little newts clamber up thorny bramble is a mystery (carefully one imagines).
The Smoothies were amateurs though, as a red earthworm species was also making a bid for the summit with several 2m from the base working steadily upwards. Several could be seen heading the opposite way down from the broken off top of the trunk some 5m up.
The other observation of note was that despite Bittersweet being the only foldable leaf present the abundant newt population in one pond were not using it for egg-laying. It stinks so maybe that puts them off??
The Today programme on Radio 4 tells me that two thirds of species are in decline, and that the Small Tortoiseshell and Natterjack Toad are under threat of extinction!! The former I can believe, but having spent a decade trying to stop the Natterjack toad from going extinct, this came as something of a shock! I had stopped fretting about the lovely Small Tort as it is one of the few butterflies I have seen this year, one does wonder who writes these press releases. My local Natter population has had a boom time of late with nearly three times more present than when I started in the late 1980s, and as long as natural dune formation continues on the Merseyside dunes I dont see much reason to panic for the continued survival of the Running Toad, though local difficulties exist (little change there for a species completely dependent on early seral habitats!) But of course grazing should sort all that out, shouldn’t it??
I hardly saw Small Tortoiseshell for 4 years in this area, but helped 4 which were flapping themselves to death against the stained glass in Ovington church this March, the first overwinterers I’d seen in yonks, so not extinct just yet.
perhaps the ultimate laugh was the startling revelation that wildlife trusts have helped compile the report. The burning question is ( given the level of info held by local records centres) how the hell would they know what is rare??
Little has been written about the substrates selected by newts on land, but observations from Cuxton Chalk pit in Strood, Kent showed some quite remarkable and very surprising associations.
Over 20,000 Smooth newts of all ages were moved as part of a licensed development. This involved extensive use of drift fencing/pitfalling, direct searching, followed by a painstaking destructive clearance. It was in the latter phase that it became apparent that Smooth Newt efts were positively attracted to the drier substrates. The high chalk cliffs that surrounded the pit eroded to form extensive talus slopes of loose friable chalk rubble from golf ball to pea size. These were partly shaded by birch dominated scrub/young woodland. It was within this debris that one year old Smooth Newt efts were most abundant. They were clearly uniquely able to survive here where there was no possible connection to ground water moisture, often 2-3m up in the screes. Adult Smooth and Great Crested Newt adults and efts were found mainly under debris which was lying on ground connected by capillary action to the wildly fluctuating groundwater levels in this bizarre pit. A huge pile of clayey overburden was present but rarely used by any newts, showing that there is a limit to drought tolerance. When I first visited the site I had assumed the newts would be concentrated in the extensive mossy covered fen areas in the lowest parts of the pit (but except when breeding in these when flooded), newts were extremely rare in this area. In high summer the moss shrivelled and presumably would have had a desiccating effect on any amphibians within it.
In hindsight i wish I had done more science, but the sheer abundance of amphibians was such that it was a full time task just rescuing them!
In 1991 the massive new cutting through this ancient chalk landscape was the site of one of the first great GREEN actions, who can forget Swampy, and the camp of ‘hippy tree hugger types’. We all speed through it now and I have even heard it said that it was an environmental success!! Well the cameras have gone and the troubles forgotten, but it is worth mentioning that part of the mitigation (which had developed into nice chalk grassland) was itself destroyed to make way for a park and ride for Winchester. My gripe today is that despite being the focus of so much media attention (which one would assume would lead to thorough steps to make the best of a controversial scheme), I pass a maturing habitat of the worst possible kind, ie Buddleja scrub. The Butterfly bush thrives in the xeric conditions of exposed chalk, and is the blight of old quarries and chalk faces. Nothing grows under it, or lives on it, it is a dusty, hideous tangle which shades out our native flora.
My alternate route to the sea passes the much deeper A3 cutting beside Butser Hill, yes considerably older it may be but it is not infested by Buddleja and provides a slowly maturing species rich face with abundant planted Juniper and self seeded yew etc, all done before protest was fashionable (see below).
Ok the top of the Twyford cutting has planted Juniper and is herb rich, but the faces are a disgrace, a cheap low maintenance Kop out. They protested for nothing!!
Found a Libellula depressa larvae today (13.5) in Bucks, wandering along on grass, 20m from edge of pond from which I assume it had just emerged. It had rained overnight so the grass was moist, and it seemed determined to continue its march, possibly heading toward a Juncus tussock, but it had bipassed the abundant reeds that edge the pond!
At Black Pond , Esher, Cordulia aenea larvae seem to prefer to climb up the large beech trees along the dam, they seem to avoid the oaks! The two pictured are under a fungal bracket 8 foot up a tree, some 24ft from the pond edge with a gracvle track adn sleeper retaining wall to negotiate. The longest journey was to a similar position 14ft up an adjacent beech!
Much is made of the needs of Great Crested Newts, with numerous publications clearly differentiating between optimum , sub-optimum habitats etc. A newt rescue in Strood, Kent in 2005 provided the most remarkable example of the plasticity of newt habitat selection.
A team of climbers were employed to investigate the stability of the old quarry faces around the Pit. The tallest cliffs are approximately 60m tall. The cliff pictured is approximately 40m tall and was investigated by abseiling down from the top. One of the climbers told us he had seen lizards on the cliff. We asked if they had run off.
‘No he replied they just sit there’.
We showed him a selection of newts and lizards, and as we suspected, he had seen adult Great Crested Newts.
‘Where were they ?’ we asked.
‘There were several, one about 4 metres from the top near the flint layer, and there were 3 together about 25m up from the bottom!
Despite being vertical, lots of tussocks have developed, and the cliff is riddled with cracks. Invertebrate food (spiders, woodlice etc.) is abundant amongst the vegetation and crevices. The cliff is north facing so remains relatively moist and cool. Clearly for the intrepid climber these high rise habitats have a lot to offer. Whether the newts have climbed up or down is unknown but access to the cliff top is possible but would involve a very convoluted journey. I suspect that most had worked upward.
Despite a couple of them sharing our homes, Thysanura are one of the most neglected of Insect families. Silverfish are still a widespread and common commensal, Firebrat was, but how much has it declined?? The genus Dilta is invariably found in old unimproved habitats and are a great flagship species. Any sites supporting the likes of D.hibernica & D.littoralis which aren’t currently protected, should be, for they will be part of a very rich assemblage. I have been collecting records from the literature, but the discovery of a new species to science D.chateri in Wales, means that old records require rechecking, and the already scant coverage is now a mess. They have just been added to mapmate, so it is a good time to try and make sense of their distributions
Dilta sp. Cuxton Kent