Protecting palmate newts at Lanhydrock

A palmate newt alongside a tadpole in the swimming pool at Lanhydrock

During the spring months palmate newts gather in the Victorian swimming pool to breed. If you approach the swimming pool slowly at dawn or dusk you can see them floating near the surface of the water on the lookout for food. Sudden movements often send them diving for cover.

Why are they here?

These newts are the smallest UK species, and are usually found in shallow acidic ponds on heaths and moorland. It’s unusual to find them in woodland and in such deep water. However, this part of Cornwall used to be covered in moorland so perhaps the descendants of the newts which thrived back then have managed to keep a stronghold in the swimming pool.

Breeding

For the breeding season the males develop distinctive black webbing on their back feet making it look a bit like they’re wearing diver’s flippers. They also develop a strange filament at the tips of their tails. The females lay individual eggs, wrapping them in the leaves of pond plants to keep them safe.

A few weeks later these eggs hatch into larvae which over the coming months develop front legs, then back legs, and eventually leave the swimming pool as an ‘eft’ (a juvenile newt). During the breeding season the adults feed on tadpoles, of which there’s no shortage in the swimming pool.

After the breeding season they move out

Over the summer and autumn the adult newts leave the water. As long as they stay out of the sun and stick to damper places they are not tied to the swimming pool and travel to feast on invertebrates in readiness for winter. It’s thought that adult newts spend two thirds of their lives on land rather than in water. They will pretty much eat any invertebrate that will fit into their mouths, including worms, slugs, crane flies and spiders – delicious! As the colder weather approaches they find cover under stones and log piles and wait out the winter, occasionally emerging in milder spells to forage for food.

How we help protect the newts

When we leave dead wood in our woodlands it might not look tidy but it has a vital role to play for the palmate newts. Not only does it provide valuable winter habitat for the newts but it also provides habitat for the invertebrates the newts feed on.

Sadly, newt populations are declining in the UK, with many areas of central England completely devoid of them. The main reason for this is habitat loss. The bogs and lowland heaths that the newts depend on are becoming ever scarcer over the years. They are left with smaller, more isolated patches of habitat which are more vulnerable to events such as droughts.

More habitat restoration work

We’ve recently started a project to restore a small patch of heathland. Our heath has become overgrown with fast growing species such as birch and laurel. If left, it would eventually turn to woodland and a potential newt habitat would be lost. We’ve been cutting down these species to allow heathland species such as heather to thrive. In the future we’re hoping the heath will provide a haven for species like the palmate newts as well as reptiles, insects and birds. It will also help provide a link between other similar habitats so that wildlife can travel between areas.  Hopefully the palmate newts will always have a home at Lanhydrock.

Swimming in the pool
A palmate newt in Lanhydrock's Victorian swimming pool