Belfast Telegraph

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Smooth Operators

by Liam Creedon

With their fiery red bellies and dramatic spiky crests, newts are secretly doing battle in UK back gardens in the quest to find a mate. Liam Creedon reports...

The male Smooth Newt is the Casanova of the animal kingdom. Despite his tiny size, this 10cm beast boasts an amorous attraction that can literally knock females off their webbed feet.

For out amongst the weedy depths of the typical suburban pond, a flamboyant underwater wooing is taking place with an intensity that would do justice to the steamiest Mills and Boon bodice-ripper.

Dressed in his spring finery - a high and handsome crest running from head to tail tip, the orange-chested male takes up his position on the pond floor to await the object of his desires.

On arrival, the unwitting female is nuzzled and cajoled by her would-be suitor who blocks her path if she deigns to wander away.

Once her attention is captured, the disco dance of seduction begins. Fixing her with a lusty amphibian grin, the newt wriggles his hips and flamboyantly vibrates his giant tail crest, wafting his scent alluringly toward her.

Some of his tail movements are so energetic that the transfixed female can be knocked from her resting position by the power of the water flow from his vibrations.

If suitably impressed, the female stays until the end of the performance. The successful male deposits a parcel of sperm, which is taken by the female and fertilised.

Newt expert Dr John Wilkinson, from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC) explains: "Each newt species has its own elaborate courtship display, evolved so that the females of the correct species respond to the males' displays.

"The display is also a measure of fitness of the male newts, those with a more dramatic and vigorous display being better potential fathers for the female's offspring."

Following mating, the female lays several hundred 3-4mm eggs individually, each wrapped in the leaf of a water plant to protect it from predators. The process takes place over several weeks.

That the humble Smooth Newt should enjoy such a flamboyant sex life should come as no surprise. The UK's three newt species are among our most fascinating and overlooked wildlife. At this time of year, it is the frogs, toads and tadpoles that tend to hog the amphibian headlines, but this really shouldn't be the case.

Newts can change colour to match their background, they can regrow lost limbs, they bear a striking resemblance to mini dragons and they possess the moves that would shame Strictly Come Dancing contestants.

Courtship display can be seen day or night during spring and early summer but the newt is far more than just a bawdy performer. Out of water, these voracious carnivores devour many of the pest species that are the bane of gardeners - newts possess a particular liking for slugs and snails.

The Smooth Newt is the species most commonly encountered in garden ponds; the very similar Palmate Newt prefers water bodies on heathland, moors and bogs and is found widely in Wales and Scotland. The Great Crested Newt, previously known as the Warty Newt, is a magnificent beast that can reach almost twice the size of its relatives. Its warty skin makes it extremely unpalatable, causing would-be cat attackers to froth at the mouth and produce copious amounts of saliva. This giant newt has declined drastically across the UK as its habitat has been destroyed.

But we can all do our bit to help newts by providing a simple back garden pond. Dr Wilkinson explains: "Though newts and other amphibians are threatened by fungal and other fairly new diseases, the biggest threat to all of them is the loss and fragmentation of their habitats through unsustainable development. This disrupts the pond networks on which they rely for reproduction.

"Everyone can help by having a small, or large garden pond populated by native aquatic plants and kept free of fish which will eat young newts."

Amorous amphibians are a key part of UK springtime, so this year why not forgo the frogs and instead nurture a newt by digging a wildlife pond.

To find out how to make your garden newt friendly go to: arc-trust.org

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Narcissus (daffodil)

They signify the essence of spring more than any other flower, their yellow blooms bursting to life in the sunshine. Yet now there are so many different types, from our native daffodil, N. pseudonarcissus, the dainty bloom that inspired Wordsworth's famous poem, to the bolder trumpet daffodils, N. pseudonarcissus subsp. major, introduced into Britain by the Romans. Pretty, fragile-looking fragrant paperwhites, with several small, scented flowers on each stem, are ideal for growing in pots for the house, while varieties which are perfect for outside containers include N. 'Jack Snipe', which has white, long-lasting flowers with yellow trumpets, and the blousy 'Bridal Crown', which looks great with dark wallflowers. Narcissi can be easily naturalised although their leaves take a good few weeks to die down, so if you're thinking of planting them in a lawn, remember you won't be able to mow it immediately they've finished flowering.

Good Enough to Eat

Protecting your potatoes

If you're planting out your chitted potatoes now, be prepared to protect the emerging shoots with fleece or a polytunnel if the weather turns cold as they are not hardy, so the shoots will be damaged by frost. When the shoots are 10-15cm high, use a draw hoe or the back of a rake to earth up, which means heaping soil up in ridges against the stems and, if necessary, over the leaves of the potatoes. This will protect the shoots from frost and encourage side shoots, leading to better yields. If you have poor soil, use multi-purpose compost to earth up, to act as a soil improver and boost the crop.

  • As camellias finish flowering, propagate them by taking leaf bud cuttings
  • Lift and divide congested clumps of snowdrops while still in leaf, tease them apart and replant them at a wider spacing
  • Finish planting out shallots in well-drained soil in a sunny site
  • Protect new shoots and developing foliage of tender shrubs by keeping horticultural fleece handy to cover them with when frost threatens
  • Keep potted peach and nectarine trees in a cold greenhouse until early summer to protect flowers from frost
  • Lift and divide marginal plants, replanting in smaller groups
  • In the greenhouse, don't overwater seedlings and remove propagator lids when seeds have germinated
  • Improve surface drainage of the lawn by hollow spiking it
  • Start slug patrols after rain or in the evening and pick off any you find on your plants, disposing of them

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