Pondscapes for Great Crested Newts

Over the past year I have been observing with interest within my locality the development of a project run by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and funded by Natural England that aims to create new ponds and improve existing ponds for Great Crested Newts. In Hurst Grange Park, Walton Park, near Dog Kennel Wood, and at Brockholes Nature Reserve I have seen old ponds dug out and new ones created and this is only a small portion of the work that is taking place across Lancashire.

The great crested newt is ‘the UK’s most pond-dependent amphibian’. Since the last half of the twentieth century it has been in decline due to the destruction and loss of the pondscapes it inhabits. Many ponds on agricultural land have been filled in or destroyed because ‘they reduce the extent and crop yield of fields and are no longer needed for livestock due to piped water systems’. More have been got rid of to make way for housing, roads, industry, commerce, and recreation.

Some ponds have been lost to natural succession – if a pond is not regularly cleared of vegetation the dead plant matter builds up and the pond is filled in and dries out. Chemical pollution, nutrification, and the introduction of fish also make ponds unsuitable for great crested newts.

Another factor is the loss of terrestrial habitat – great crested newts favour ‘rough grassland, scrub and woodland’ and need dead wood and underground crevices beneath roots to shelter. Habitat fragmentation caused by human-made obstacles to their movement is another cause of decline.

North West England has ‘the highest pond density’ in England and Wales. Whilst many of these ponds are ‘flooded, abandoned marl pits’ dated to 150 to 200 years ago ‘they are interspersed with ponds of diverse origin’. Some are also man-made such as ‘brick pits, tile pits, pottery clay pits, gravel pits, sand pits, rock quarries, peat diggings, spoil hollows, water mill ponds, bomb craters, saw pits, mine entrances, textile mill lodges, public reservoirs, farm reservoirs, angling ponds, man-made subsidence hollows (flashes)… moats, duck decoys,’ and ‘ornamental ponds’.

Other ponds are much older and of natural origin such as ‘proglacial lakes, meltwater channels, kettleholes, inter-dune slacks, cut-off meanders and ox-bow lakes’ and ‘ancient subsidence hollows’. These could date back to after the Ice Age and have existed for over 10,000 years during which lowland Lancashire was a water country* of marshland, peat bog, reed bed, alder carr, willow scrub, and damp oak woodland interspersed with countless lakes, ponds, and pools – perfect newt habitat.

Great crested newts are one of Europe’s oldest amphibians. They belong to the family Salamandridae. The remains of their ancestors, salamanders, have been dated to the Jurassic (160 million years ago). The great crested newt (Tritutus cristatus) developed as a species 40 million years ago and spent the Ice Age in the Carpathians then expanded its range across the rest of Europe after the glaciers melted.

It is possible to imagine a march of great crested newts moving slowly northwards, much like our ancestors, from pond to pond, crossing the land-bridge of Doggerland, making their homes here in Britain.

The great crested newt is so dependent on ponds because they are central to its life cycle. After hibernating through the winter under dead wood or underground it emerges between February and April and moves to ponds to mate. The male chooses a display area known as a ‘lek’ in an open part of the pond. Displaying his remarkable crest he rocks, leans, and whips and fans his white-striped tail to waft pheromones at the female. Once he has gained her interest, touching his tail with her nose, he deposits his spermatophore, which she collects in her vent before fertilisation takes place internally.

The female lays around 250 eggs in a jelly capsule with a light yellowish centre 4.5 – 6mm long on the submerged leaves of plants, carefully wrapping them with her back legs. Species favoured include grasses such as sweet or flote grasses (Glyceria spp.), small wide-leaved plants such as water mint (Mentha aquatica), and narrow-leaved plants such as water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides).


The larvae hatch and develop in the pond and reach a length of 50 – 90mm before metamorphosing into juveniles known as ‘efts’ who grow up to 120mm in length and leave the pond for the first time. They have all the features of adults – black or dark brown skin with a warty appearance and orange ‘nail varnish’ on their claws, but it isn’t until the second season that the distinctive black patterning on their fiery bellies which marks each as an individual becomes fixed and, upon reaching sexual maturity that the male develops his eponymous crest and white tail-stripe. Males reach a maximum length of 170mm and females 130mm and on average they live for around 14 years.

Ponds are the only food source for newt larvae and and are an important part of the diet of adults, who feed on the tadpoles of frogs and sometimes other newts and invertebrates such as ‘water lice (Asellus spp.), water shrimps, small snails, lesser water boatmen (Corixa spp).,’ ‘fly larvae including the phantom midge (Chaoborus spp)’ and also ‘zooplankton such as water fleas (Daphnia spp)’. They also forage above ground, eating invertebrates ‘such as earthworms, insects, spiders and slugs.’

Most of the foraging activities of great crested newts take place within 250m of their breeding pond. When the juvenile newts disperse they may travel up to 1000m to colonise new ponds and attract a mate. Great crested newts fare best in a metapopulation – ‘a group of associated populations’ who ‘breed in, and live around a cluster of ponds.’ This means there is less threat if one or more ponds are lost.

Thus current conservation efforts are focusing on areas that are already well endowed with ponds in the North West. A whole new terminology, coined by Robin F. Grayson in 1994, has developed around this topic. A pondscape is a ‘landscape with six or more ponds shown on Pathfinder maps in each adjacent 1 km square of the National Grid.’ A ‘core pondscape is ‘where the mapped pond density is 15 or more ponds per 1 km square’. A pondway is ‘a linear tract of pondscape, typically 10 or more km in length’. A pond supercluster is ‘a large tract of pondscape, typically covering 100 square km.’

Pondways have been identified across Lancashire. I was delighted to find out there is a South Ribble Pondway, which is located not only in the borough of South Ribble, but covers a strip 25km long and 5km wide from the estuary of the river Douglas to Brockhall Hospital in Blackburn. Grayson links the end of the pondway with the failure of Northern Drift – sands, clays and erratics deposited by glaciers. There is also a North Ribble Pondway 9km long and 2.5km wide, a Wigan Pondway that links to the South Ribble Pondway in Croston that stretches 50km, and a Fylde Supercluster.

The creation of pondscapes for great crested newts fits well with other projects aiming to restore the water country such as the re-wetting of the drained wetlands around Martin Mere (WWT) and Leighton Moss (RSPB) and peat bogs such as Chat Moss and Winmarleigh Moss (LWT).

As winters become cooler and wetter and summers hotter and drier as a result of the climate crisis, the restoration of wetlands will be essential not only for human needs such as flood mitigation and carbon capture, but as homes for the wetland plants and creatures who are at increasing risk due to human and climatic pressures.

*The area around Martin Mere was known as ‘the Region Linuis’ ‘the Lake Region’ and John Porter refers to the Iron Age Setantii tribe of the Lancashire lowlands as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

SOURCES

Robin F. Grayson, ‘The Distribution and Conservation of the Ponds of North West England’, Lancashire Wildlife Journal, Numbers 2 & 3, (1992/3)

Robin F. Grayson, ‘Surveying and Monitoring Great Crested Newts’, English Nature, vol. 20, (1994)

Tom Langton, Catherine Beckett, and Jim Foster, Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook, (Froglife, 2001)

‘New life to Europe’s oldest reptile and amphibians’, LIFE-Nature Project, (2006)

How to Speak of a Newt

in the twenty-first century?

Unreptilian metaphors –

white paint spots
orange nail varnish
road-marking tail

cannot capture his majesty.

When he comes to me
with his great tail-question
forefeet planted firmly on the floor

waxen crest waving like a dragon’s

and asks me to bear his progeny –
in back-leg leaf origami
to fold up our eggs

I am tempted by his
awesome belly-signature

the colour of fire the setting sun
reminding me of his salamandrine past
in ponds and pools of the Jurassic

to make his lek my dwelling place and give birth to efts –

each with their unique belly-stamp only one
of each in this ever-burning universe

with a fire-tipped tongue give them
mystical names – Sun-Spotted, Fire-Born,
Gold-Eye, Dragon Crest, Alchemist.

He forgets I am a nun – instead

I promise to renew the pond-ways,
the pond-scape, the ecology of land
and language so he, his mate, his young
will inspire poetry here on and on.

*I recently started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve and the task of the volunteer work party on Tuesday was building habitat heaps from alder logs. Later in the day, serendipitously, Lorna Bennett, the reserve officer, found a great crested newt along with approximately 20 adult and juvenile smooth newts, 2 juvenile toads, and 5 frogs whilst moving some old compost bags. These amphibians have been placed safely into a habitat heap to hibernate over winter before they emerge in spring and hopefully head to the new ponds to breed. The ponds were created for them by LWT’s work with Natural England to remedy the decline in great crested newts.

Birthday Dragonfly

I.
You land
on her sky-blue
shoulder

four red dots
on the webbing
of your wings

red-tailed

eyes brown
and flickering
swivelling

like a rock star
with a guitar

washing soap
from your face
as if preparing
to make

a confession.

II.
It’s the 19th
of November

and over a year
since the accident
when my bike
met wings.

Since I
listened to
your message
and obeyed
the summons
of wetland
things.

III.
It is not you
who needs to confess
to make it up to the land
somehow but I

preserving
your pond from
willow and typha
and phragmites.

In this work
I forget my anxiety.

IV.
I can push
a wheelbarrow,
wield a mattock,
loppers, saw,

not like
technologies.

Weep for the willow
but know it will
survive

far longer
than electricity.

V.
In the midst
of the lockdown
the sun shines on
my birthday.

And you
are red on blue
washing the suds
from my eyes
clearing

the ponds

teaching me joy.

*I record my accidental killing of a common darter and the impact it had on my life HERE.
**These photographs were taken at Fishwick Bottoms Nature Reserve, Preston, where I currently volunteer on a Thursday.

Fish House Brook

Fish House BrookFish House Brook is a stream in Penwortham, which runs from behind my street, Bank Parade, through Greencroft Valley to the river Ribble. Since I started litter picking in the valley three years ago I have been clearing the brook, walking it regularly and researching its history. This article traces its course from source to mouth and provides snap shots of the ways people have related to it over the last few centuries.

~

The source of Fish House Brook and its earliest stretch have been culverted underground. Its course is indicated by the street names Bank Parade and an adjacent cul-de-sac called Burnside Way. It runs underneath the gardens on the eastern side of Bank Parade.

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

A few months ago Gordon at number 14 kindly invited me into his garden to see the site of its steep banking, which is now occupied by a pond.

FHB tributary's old valley BP no. 14 - CopyHe also lifted the grille to let me take a peek at the swiftly flowing underground stream.

FHB culverted tributary - CopyThe brook now emerges from a concrete pipeline behind Malt Kiln Cottage.

Fish House Brook, sourceThe following maps show Fish House Brook running from behind Malt Kiln Cottage into Greencroft Valley in the 1840’s and today.

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

Malt Kilm Cottage and Greencroft Valley 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

Malt Kiln Cottage and Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage originally housed a water mill used to mill grain for beer. A picture of the pool behind the mill leat can be found on the Tithe Map (1838). Elizabeth Basquill provides a detailed account of how the malsters in residence used water from the stream and adjacent well to soak barley in a malster’s trough before it was dried and delivered by horse and cart round the corner to the Black Bull pub (2).

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

During this period Fish House Brook must have been much larger and more powerful to turn a water wheel. Its diminishment shows the effect of building 300 houses and their accompanying pipelines for clean water, drainage and sewage during the Central New Towns Project in the 1980’s.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley is the largest surviving green space between the new estates. The old field lines remain intact, indicated by rows of trees. The wooded areas provide living space and nesting places for hedgehogs, squirrels and birds including magpies, wrens, a variety of tits, nut hatches and a woodpecker.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley playing field

The brook has had its share of pollution problems, mainly from grey water out of faulty washing machines. Since reporting this, it has been less frequent. Frog spawn and frogs have been seen, and a few smaller insects. However, there is no sign of any fish. This is disappointing as the 1840’s map shows a fish pond, which according to the Tithe Map was in Fish Pan Field, suggesting local people used to pan in the brook for fish.

Fish Pan Field

Fish Pond and Greencroft Valley 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish Pan Field

Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The brook is culverted from Greencroft Valley beneath Hill Road South.

Fish House Brook, Culvert under Hill Rd SouthIt emerges close to Rosefold house and cottages.

Rose Fold Cottages

Rose Fold Cottages

According to Elizabeth Basquill the cottages and yard were part of a tannery. During the late 19th century Fish House Brook was used to wash hides. ‘The hides were soaked in slaked lime first, then washed, and the hair and flesh scraped off.’ This process would have caused considerable pollution to the stream. Two adjacent fish ponds, which Elizabeth believes may have existed from the medieval period were ‘later used as tan pits for washing the skins’ (3).

Rosefold

Rose Fold 1840, Courtesy of Mario Maps

Rosefold

Rose Fold now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The first stretch of the brook, heading northeast, cannot be followed behind the houses. Where it makes a rightangle and heads northwest, a footpath runs alongside it. This follows the line of a much older route that led from Middleforth Green to St Mary’s Well (4).

Fish House BrookIt then bends right and passes through Campbell’s Park Homes following its old course round the back of the mobile houses.

Fish House Brook, Campbell's Park Homes

Fish House Brook, Campbell’s Park Homes

Campbells Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Campbell's Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook, the Meadows and Campbells Park Homes now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The residential park nestles within the triangle of Penwortham Junction. The train lines pictured closed in 1965 and are now covered by beech, birch, sycamore, bramble and an array of wildflowers, forming important wildlife corridors.

Campbell's Park Homes

Campbell’s Park Homes

Another tributary enters Fish House Brook, running from the back of Far Field across the meadows. The pathway to St Mary’s Well crosses it, and there is a newer footbridge further south. At this time of year the meadows are thriving with mayflowers, buttercups, plantain, wild carrot, orange tipped and cabbage white butterflies and an abundance of bees.

The Meadows

The Meadows

The brook runs through Penwortham Allotments (unfortunately out of bounds) then is finally culverted beneath Leyland Road under Fish House Bridge.

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Brook culverted under Fish House Bridge

The 1840’s map shows a lodge beside Fish House Bridge. Alan Crosby says the bridge took its name from a timber building which ‘served as the quarters of the manorial river bailiff.’ This dwelling was adjacent to the fish garths, which were mainly used for catching salmon between December and August. It was the bailiff’s task to make sure the fishermen from different townships abided by the rules of the fisheries (5).

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge now, courtesy of Mario Maps

It is clear Fish House Brook derives its name from the Fish House, and as far as I know, no trace of an earlier name remains.

~

Each of these locations holds a story and discloses a relationship between the brook and the people who have depended on it. Since water started being piped in the 19th century, we’ve had no need to fetch it from wells or streams for drinking or bathing. Due to modern farming and production methods few of us rely on local waterways for fish, mill our own grain or tan our own skins.

This has a distancing effect. Due to continuing building work, I cannot imagine a time when the water from Fish House Brook will be safe to drink. It is uncertain whether fish will return, although some small fish were sighted by mum in nearby Penwortham Brook.

Small fish photographed by my mum in Penwortham Brook. Can you identify them?

Small fish photographed by my mum in Penwortham Brook. Can you identify them?

Whilst it’s impossible to turn back the clocks, I think there is time to get to know and understand our watercourses, and the lives and motivations of the people who have worked with and changed them. This article is an early marker stone on the journey through this process for me.

(1) Courtesy of Mario Maps
(2) Elizabeth Basquill, More Hidden Histories of Penwortham Houses (2011), p6-11, 42-44
(3) Ibid, p34-36
(4) St Mary’s Well was famous for being the cleanest source of water in the area and was attributed healing properties. Local people used to walk a mile to access their favoured water source, and it was also a site of pilgrimage.
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, (1988), p48

Dobbie

Full moon breaks the rushes,
quivering lips soft whiskered brush the water,
hair line trail traces black velvet muzzle
which moistens, smacks and laps,
heavy glug of oesophagus
tugs water to the bowels of a dread black creature.
The beast drinks deep, shaggy hide
long and twitching skirts agile cloven feet.
His saucer red eyes hold star glow infernal.
Head raised dripping, he speaks a gargling tale
of strangled marshes, dried out mosslands,
shrunken brooks and pools abandoned,
eternal thirst his cruel domain and an endless lust for riders
to sink beneath the skin of a world unintelligible
to one deep as peat and old as the glaciers.
His lips close slapping. His burning eyes blink.
With a fish-like leap he slips below the water.