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Sex food and shelter - amphibian style


I was fiddling in the garden on Monday in a break between the morning drizzle and the afternoon downpour.

I am lucky enough to have access to an almost limitless quantity of leaf mould so I have been digging over some of the worst of the clay, teasing the leaf mould in rather gingerly with a hand trowel where I know or suspect that there are perennials waiting to push their heads up.

It was whilst I was doing just this that I turned over a large clod of solid clay and found nestled underneath it three newts and a rather small frog – all in a state of near torpor.

My feelings on finding them are surprising similar to those I had on finding I was pregnant: ridiculously proud as if I had done something particularly clever, but also a sense of dread in case I mess up.

A modern baby comes with several books, relatives and friends each giving contradictory advice on how best to bring them up. The average newt comes either with stony silence or well-meant advice from a neighbour that decking is generally easier to manage than a garden.

So I have been in search of advice. Natural England are a bit dismissive of us gardeners – our ponds and flower beds are too often seen as a temporary refuge and perhaps this sceptism is justified. It wouldn’t be the first time that I have sliced off the head of a slow-worm when turning my compost, nor can I claim to be totally sure that my lawn-mower has never mown through the odd frog or toad. There is a lot to be said for slovenly gardening when it comes to wildlife: not just for amphibians and reptiles but for birds and hedge-hogs too.

My garden though has to work for its place in our affections – I expect flowers and vegetables as well as wildlife, and the whole family wants to spend time amongst the bumble bees, so I was looking for compromises not ultimatums.

The first clear message I found was that my pond, whilst adequate, doesn’t exactly cut the mustard. I do have submerged plants, plenty of unidentifiable (at least to me) creepy crawlies and no fish. This is all good: newts in particular are keen on laying their eggs on the vegetation in the pond and fish (or ducks) are equally keen on eating them again, so I have decided to live without gold-fish. The pond is pretty deep – perhaps 1 metre in places, so though its small it doesn’t freeze all the way to the bottom allowing wildlife to lie low when the weather is bad.

The problem with it is that it looks rather like a large brick bath with little access for animals to get in or out. I’ve tried to get over the problem by providing scaffolding in the shape of an ivy climbing up, over and into the water. On the other side I’ve submerged a pot so that frogs can climb out and have a rest amongst the water irises. Is this good enough? I’m not sure to be honest. There certainly are frogs and newts in there at times over the last year and last spring there was frog and newt spawn, but the numbers of frogs I’ve found seem pretty low to me and watching a robin try to get a drink is more entertaining than it should be.

The solution was clearly to finish digging the new pond that got started when we first moved in and then made way for the fencing man. Some hours later, the new pond is pretty dull at present – little more than a hole in the ground covered in lining, edged with what passes for turf in my garden and full of water with a bit of subsoil in the bottom.

The position isn’t ideal either, in a corner by a bit of fence and hedging: really it could with a bit more sun. But where it wins is on the ease of access for wildlife. I will add in a few flags and waterlillies, and perhaps a starter mixture of plants and sludge from the original pond when I can bear the horrible weather again and then it should do very well. I won’t be moving any amphibians though. If they like it they will find their own way home.

On seeing the children and me covered in mud digging a new pond, Mr SussexSarah asked how many ponds we thought we needed. There may have been a hint of sarcasm in his voice but this seemed to me a rather interesting question and luckily the University of Salford have already found out the answer. The more ponds you have the greater the diversity of wildlife – each one will provide its own version of heaven and even if your creepy crawly of choice does not live there on a permanent basis it may well find it quite an acceptable holiday home or restaurant. So the best answer to his question appears to be “just one more darling.”

To come back to the question of frogs and newts, they spend surprisingly little time in the ponds, and a lot of time roaming the garden throwing themselves under the nearest lawnmower. The trick is to only mow when the grass is nice and dry. Amphibians like their habitat long and damp – inevitably that means more casualties when you do mow but I think on balance its probably the right strategy. Unsurprisingly they also like to move about in comparative safety, safe from the eyes of the local cat population. And of course they like insects – and lots of them.

That brings us to the dreaded garden fence. How I loathe the things. We were bullied by our neighbours into putting a dead wood fence in our gardens where it promptly cuts out the light, prevents wildlife moving around, and costs a fortune.

Wouldn’t it be much nicer to have a hedgerow with roses and loganberries, hawthorn and birds-nests, and lots of places for the little ones to hide. My own garden is fairly common in having a mix of the two, but I wish I had been braver and put my foot down to fences.

Anyway I’m hoping that between the ponds, the hedges, and the low growing plants I will have provided my newts with plenty of opportunities for sex and food. What about shelter?

The newts and frog I found hibernating were rather scrunched up, and the idea of life beneath a small clod of clay doesn’t strike me as that ideal. I had assumed that they would make for the gently rotting pile of wood when autumn came. But perhaps not: back to Natural England again who assure me that what I need is a hibernaculum – a type of Saxon burial mound for newts.

I’ll have to see if that fits with my idea of a garden! I’m guessing that this type of design could easily be turned into something that looks a lot more like a raised bed with drainage holes and with the bottom filled with a decent quantity of rubble.

I shall ponder the matter more. In the meantime – back out to the garden to plant up the pond!

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Previous post: Hits and Misses - part 1 Evening primroses

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Thank you I enjoyed reading your blog, I dont have a pond but we do get toads coming to the front of the cottage some times. We cant work out were they come from, as none of a neighbors have a pond. We do back on to open countryside and there is a stream, but its a good 10 min walk from us.

5 Mar, 2011


What a thoroughly good read! The idea of newts throwing themselves under the nearest lawnmower had me holding my sides while tears of laughter dripped into the keyboard! I look forward to further blogs telling us how your little familes are getting along in your new ponds. :o)

6 Mar, 2011


The answer to your Toad conundrum was given to us by Wind in the Willows - they like a bit of a venture into pastures new, so your toad may indeed have come from ten minutes away.

Sadly though they like to go home when it comes to breeding so they are difficult to introduce to ponds. I found a huge one the other day which had been run over and was clearly just about to spawn. Very sad.

However, worry not - I am assured by the Edinburgh Biodiversity Action Plan that the Toad is our most common amphibian.

6 Mar, 2011


A great read, frightening how the discovery of one frog can lead onto so much, maybe the amphibian version of the butterfly effect!

6 Mar, 2011

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