If I were a newt , I’d believe in God

Last week the weather was ‘lovely’, or that was what we were told by the people on telly – and they should know. I think it was Thursday, but around 6.00 AM I’d done the second morning patrol through the barn and had found a ewe with a large single female lamb, both of whom I’d penned-up safely. After treating the lamb’s navel with antiseptic iodine spray, I’d nipped indoors to make a much-needed cup of tea, while the ewe decided whether she would consider starting to deliver a second lamb. She was a bit like that: characterful; haughty even. Ewes can sometimes be very slow to make these decisions. Maybe it’s a genetic response to their wild past as mountain creatures, where foxes, jackals and wolves were on the prowl, looking out for new-born lambs. But sometimes too, I’ll swear they’re taking the Mick: no sooner is my back turned than they pod out a lamb. Anyhow, I knew better than to hang around while she made up her mind. Hence that cup of tea.

Newt and bins

The newt as I first saw him in front of our dustbins

After about ten minutes indoors, I decided to take my tea back with me to the barn. I’d just pulled on my faithful, elastic-sided R.M. Williams boots. Incidentally, you’ll never find a sheep farmer wearing lace-up boots during lambing, especially if the lambing pens are close to the farmhouse. Nothing is worse than fumbling with numb fingers, trying to undo mud- (or worse) spattered laces. But to return to the plot, I’d just pulled on my boots and was looking through the glass of the back door when I spotted something move in front ofthe dust bins. Quite often, especially on warm, wet summer mornings, we find toads outside the back door, but this time it was something different. So I grabbed my camera and took the pictures you can see here. The movement that had caught my eye was a newt. I’m no herpetologist (look it up!) but I think he’s a male from the vivid colouring of his underside and the swelling just behind his back legs. The lack of an elaborate crest suggests he’s one of the more common smooth newts (Triturus vulgaris), although if I’m wrong there’ll be a knock on our door at dawn next week, announcing the arrival of the Wildlife Gestapo. Because if we do have the much rarer great crested newts (Triturus cristatus), then life in our house and garden will become impossible: we’d have to get written permission from Brussels, before putting the washing on the line. And as for lighting the barbecue…!


A close-up of the newt before I sprinkled the dry paving with water

Our newt was one of several hundred who live around here and was probably on the way to the pond from several  areas of old bricks and rubble we had deliberately placed alongside the drive when we’d discovered our newly-dug pond had attracted newts. As I recall, that was shortly after we’d built the house, back in 1995. These amphibian-friendly areas are now partially overgrown with a rampant rose hedge, which is ideal as it provides shelter from the summer sun and the worst of winter’s cold. The newts snuggle into the gaps between the rubble, where the hibernate, to come out in early spring and spawn. We’ve also left an area of un-mown grass around the pond, to allow newts to pass freely between the rubble and the water. But some newts, like some people, always have to be different. And our little chap out by the dustbin was one of these. But, I thought, best not interfere. So I sprinkled him and the paving with water, as it was very dry that morning, and went on my way, back to the barn.

When I returned, half an hour later, the newt had gone. Presumably he was on his way to the pond. So I walked round the back of the house, down to the pond to see how dry it was. And it was terrible: far too much ‘lovely’ weather. The bottom was covered in grass, bone dry and still ridden with deep cracks that formed last summer. This set me wondering whether I oughtn’t provide our now large newt population with water. Maybe I should dig in some plastic sheeting, or fill an old tub? Laying aside the fact that lambing is a very busy time, I was also in some doubt about this: frogs need ramps if they are to get in and out of artificial pools, so what about newts? I thought about telephoning a cousin of mine who is the country’s greatest expert on newt conservation, but it was far too early in the morning to phone a retired academic. Then it was breakfast. Then more lambs. And so the day passed. The next thing I knew was I had collapsed into bed. Newts had been pushed to the back of my mind. For once, I didn’t even turn on BBC-1’s The Newts at Ten.

The following morning I arose at five, to find a ewe podding out her second lamb. I managed to get them iodined and hurdled-up safely, then decided to return indoors for a cuppa. As I approached the back door in the early morning half-light I kept a watchful eye out for newts. But there were none. The paving, the pond, everywhere was dry. Bone dry. The coffee grounds I spread across the asparagus bed alongside the path to the back door were so dry they were blowing around my feet. This is what normally happens in August, but this was early March! Again, I found my thoughts were returning to that poor unfortunate newt now, presumably, wandering lost around the dustbowl that had once been a pond.

Dry pond

Our garden pond in early March 2012. Normally it is full to the brim. This season it dried-up in May 2011 and has been dry ever since. The three trees on the far side are swamp cypresses (Taxodium distichum), a native of the south-eastern U.S. They’re one of the few trees that can actually tolerate growing in water. Behind is a screen of pollarded white willows (Salix alba, var. vitellina, ‘Britzensis’), largely planted for the benefit of long-tailed tits, which have been with us for fifteen years.

I took my tea to my office and turned on the television for the 5.55 weather forecast on BBC-1 – one of the best and most detailed of the day. To my immense surprise the forecast was for heavy and continuous rain on Sunday. The rains and sleet would be accompanied by strong north-westerly gales as a vigorous depression grew over the southern North Sea. I thought of that newt and could have cheered. Then I thought of my young lambs in their ‘scamper pen’, as we call it, on the north-west side of the barn. The very young lambs are still too small to face March gales out in the fields, so I like to keep them back for at least a couple of weeks while they grow in strength and agility. We rarely lose these slightly more mature lambs to foxes, which have become a big problem in this part of the Fens.

Tarp barn

The blue screen I hastily erected to protect the young lambs

As soon as the forecast was finished, I poured my tea into a plastic beaker and headed out for the barn where for the next hour I rigged-up a tarpaulin against the impending gales. And it was just as well I did, because the storm was one of the worst I have experienced here. I’m writing this on Monday morning having already done two checks of the barn and emptied my rain gauge, which to my surprise only held 17mm. We’d been led to expect up to 50mm. But even what we got was enough to close the cracks in the pond. And the weathermen say there’s more on the way tonight, and heavy rain  all day Wednesday. So with any luck, this appalling dry spell is at last coming to a close. And not before time. Maybe all those little newts out in our pond had been saying their prayers? Or doing a rain dance…

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