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Thursday, June 13, 2024
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HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Have I got newts for you

Notes from the Sticks: Have I got newts for you

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I AM tremendously keen on the British artist Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942) and as usual I have a calendar of his work above my desk. This month’s picture is quite an early one called Newt Pond, pencil and watercolour, 1932. It was painted at fellow artist Edward Bawden’s home, Beslyns, in Great Bardfield, Essex.

I love newts but it is decades since I have seen one. Of all the marvels of nature amphibians must be amongst the most marvellous, starting life as water creatures with gills and metamorphosing into air-breathers with lungs. I’m not sure how much of an advantage this double life is since it makes them vulnerable to aquatic and land predators and pressures, and indeed numbers of many species are dropping dramatically globally.

There are about 100 types of newt in the world, and three are native to Britain. The most widespread is the smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) and this is the most likely to colonise garden ponds. It is about 4ins long, and has a yellow/orange underside with small black spots. In the breeding season the male develops a wavy crest along the back.

The palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus) is found on acid-rich heathland. It is similar in size and colour to the smooth newt but lacks spots on the throat, and in the breeding season the male develops a black filament at the tip of its tail and black webbing on its back feet, from which it gets its name.

The largest is the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) which is about 7ins long. The underside is bright orange with black blotches. The male in breeding season is really spectacular with a jagged crest along the back. It makes me think of a small dinosaur.

When I lived in Beckenham, in the south London suburbs, thirty years ago, a neighbour was lucky enough to have a colony of great crested newts in a tiny pond. I very much doubt if they are still there.

All the newts lay spawn as individual eggs wrapped in the leaf of an aquatic plant. The larvae have feathery gills – the one below is a smooth newt. They eat invertebrates and frog and toad tadpoles.

The gills shrink as the lungs develop and the young newts start to live on land, at which time stage they are known as ‘efts’. Newts are nocturnal and spend the day in damp places, frequently underneath logs and stones. As the weather gets colder they look for somewhere frost-free to overwinter, such as a compost heap, under paving slabs or in the muddy banks of a pond. They may take advantage of milder weather to come out and forage for insects, slugs and worms. This is technically not hibernation but ‘brumation’. If you find one out and about in the winter it is best to leave it alone.

(Eric Ravilious was one of the first war artists appointed in 1939 and you can see a few of his paintings here, though to my mind this is not a great selection. On September 2 ,1942 he opted to fly with a crew dispatched from Iceland to look for a missing plane. His aircraft disappeared and all on board were recorded as missing in action. Ravilious was 39.)

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Sheep of the Week

THIS magnificent beast is a Dorset Horn ram. The ewes have smaller, daintier horns. Both sexes have a distinctive pink nose. The breed has the unique ability to lamb all year round, sometimes twice a year, and ewes can continue to lamb until they are ten or 12 years old. Among British sheep, it is the only one capable of breeding throughout the winter.

The sheep of Dorset were known for breeding out of season as far back as the 17th century and the Dorset Horn was probably developed from crossing with a Merino type.

By 1891 the breed was firmly established and the Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders’ Association came into being. Animals were widely exported to North America and South Africa, and in Australia the breed became highly important. However, the Australians prefer polled sheep (without horns) for ease of management, and used Ryeland sheep to produce a non-horned variety of the Dorset Horn, the Poll Dorset. These were imported into the UK and soon became more popular than the original Dorset Horns.

Because of this, in 1981 the Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders’ Association changed its name to the Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Sheep Breeders’ Association.

The Dorset Horn’s popularity has continued to decline: in the 1980s there were more than 100,000 breeding ewes but it is now estimated by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust that there are between 900 and 1,500 head.

They have a reputation for being docile and friendly, as you can see here:

Here is another video, but only for those with strong stomachs.

You can read more about the Dorset Horn at the Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Sheep Breeders’ Association. 

I was hoping to write about the Llanwenog as this Week’s Sheep, but had trouble finding a picture. I contacted three organisations with pictures on the internet asking for permission to use them. Two did not reply and the third, a holiday cottage owner in Wales, replied:

Dear Margaret

Thanks for getting in touch. 

I have looked at the About Us section on your website. I appreciate the opportunity but we do not wish to be associated with the kind of extreme ideology that you espouse on your site.

Good day to you 

Best regards

It was the ‘Best regards’ that made me laugh.

If by any chance you can get hold of a copyright-free pic of a Llanwenog sheep, do please let me know.

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Wheels of the Week

This 1993 Rover Metro 1118cc is 30 years old this month. It seems quite young to be a classic car, but there seem to be varying cut-off points. I think it has to do with the time elapsed since the model was last made.

The Metro series was launched by British Leyland in 1980 and the Rover marque was introduced in May 1990. There were several versions and this one was the basic. I haven’t been able to find out what was specific about the Quest Edition but I am guessing it was cosmetic. In 1994 it was renamed the Rover 100. After a poor performance in crash tests, it was taken out of production in 1998.

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A FEW weeks ago I wrote about mistletoe and remarked that it is puzzling that it grows in Scandinavia, but not northern Britain, which is further south. Reader ‘Arnold Grutt’ shed light: ‘The median temperature line of 60 deg F in June goes across Great Britain about halfway up but turns abruptly up the North Sea to include the whole of Scandinavia (according to an old book by Karel Voous, a Dutch ornithologist, a pictorial Guide to the Birds of Europe, strangely not listed on Wikipedia). In short they have warmer summers than the north part of Britain. The distribution of some summer-visitor birds to the UK seems also to be affected by this temperature restriction, eg historically the nightingale but also possibly the marsh tit, an all-year round resident species. Perhaps mistletoe is limited by the same universal constraint.’

Thanks, Arnold!

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FINALLY, a reminder that reader Kathy Nel (‘linuslimmy’) is collating anecdotal evidence about bird and insect numbers, either increases or decreases (or even static). Send your comments and observations to this address: missingcritters@yahoo.com. If you leave a comment below the line, we need a geographical location to be able to use it.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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