One of our less well-known animals in the Belfast Hills is the Common Newt (usually known as the Smooth Newt). Despite its name, it is no longer very common, and is now designated a Northern Ireland Priority Species, and is protected by law.
Smooth Newts are 1 of only 2 native amphibians in N. Ireland (the other being the Common Frog). At this time of year, romance is high on their priorities, and they seek out small ponds or ditches, even garden ponds, for breeding. Males develop an orange belly and a distinctive wavy crest on their back during the breeding season. They perform a courtship dance to woo females, who will then lay as many as 300 individual eggs in vegetation around the edges of ponds. This differs from frogs which lay masses of eggs together (“frogspawn”). The young newts emerge during the summer, and are called “efts”. Later in the year, newts leave their ponds and spend the winter hibernating under logs, stones or even under garden sheds!
There are a lot of things you can do to help newts in your area. If you have a garden pond, consider devoting it to wildlife rather than stocking it with fish (which will usually eat newts), or even consider creating a pond if you don’t have one. Keep some areas of your garden not too overly manicured: areas of long grass, or piles of stones or logs will shelter newts over the winter. Try to avoid using too many chemicals in your garden. Amphibians have wet skin which is very susceptible to absorbing pesticides and other chemicals. If you see a newt, you can send the details with a photo to CEDaR (Centre for Environmental Data Recording: http://nmni.com/CEDaR/Submit-records) to help add to our knowledge about where they are.
Smooth newts have declined in recent years, and it is important that we monitor them. Seán Meehan, representing the Irish Wildlife Trust (www.iwt.ie), recently led a training event for the Belfast Hills Partnership, where volunteers learned how to survey for this elusive creature.
Belfast Hills Partnership also carry out regular surveys for a range of other animals and plants, including bats, butterflies, birds and wildflowers. If you are interested in gaining experience with wildlife surveys, contact out volunteer officer Lisa Critchley (firstname.lastname@example.org) or keep an eye on our website Belfasthills.org for future training courses.