British newts

David Chapman / 13 March 2014

David Chapman on the 'complex and compassionate' spring courtship rituals of British newts.



In the UK we have three native species of newt: common or smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris); palmate newt (Triturus helveticus) and great crested newt (Triturus cristatus).  All three can be found in garden ponds though the great crested newt is quite rare.

Spring usually comes a little later for newts than for frogs and toads.  It isn’t uncommon to find frog and toad spawn in garden ponds during January and February but newts usually leave it until March before they come out of hibernation and then spawning takes place in March and April.  

The courtship of newts is far less obvious than that of frogs and toads but it is much more complex and compassionate.  The male displays to a chosen female by flicking his tail, all the time releasing pheromones to seduce her.  If his attentions are reciprocated he will release a sack of sperm for her to collect, the fertilisation of her eggs will then take place internally.  The female lays around 300 eggs attaching each one to a piece of underwater vegetation, often turning a leaf over to protect their egg.

Young newt larvae have a distinctive frill of external gills behind their heads.  Unlike frogs they grow their front legs first and when they have lost their gills they leave the water in the summer months to feed on dry land.

The adults stay in the pond for most of the spring but have nothing to do with the rearing of their young.  While in the pond they are quite difficult to watch since they rarely spend any time around the surface, just darting to the meniscus occasionally to take a gulp of air.  Both adult and young are entirely carnivorous eating aquatic insects, small fish and tadpoles. They are predominantly nocturnal finding their food by smell so if you want to watch them it is a good idea to take a torch to the pond after dark.  

With the exception of great crested newts, most newts leave the water during autumn to spend winter on dry ground.  At this time they can be found hiding under logs and stones and are useful in helping to keep down the number of garden pests such as slugs and snails. To encourage newts into our gardens we need to provide a good cover of pond plants in which they can stay hidden from predators and lay their eggs.  A nearby log pile and some longer vegetation close to the pond will also help.

Tips for identifying British newts

  • The smooth or common newt in breeding season has spotted flanks and throat.
  • The palmate newt, commonest in slightly acidic areas, has an unspotted throat; breeding males have a tail which ends in a filament and webbed hind feet (photo shows a palmate newt).
  • The great crested newt is our largest species, breeding males have a ragged crest along their back.
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