Mark Solomons

In praise of Boris’s nemesis: the great crested newt

Britain is not blessed with an abundance of amphibians. There are just seven native varieties. The loss of ponds – whether in gardens, farmland or in areas earmarked for development – has seen a dramatic decline in habitat for one of the seven in particular, the great crested newt (or GCN for short). Its rarity means it is protected by law, making it an offence to kill, injure or capture one, or damage its habitat.

That is why for construction firms, road builders and, most recently, Boris Johnson, no newts is good news. The discovery of GCNs at Johnson’s Oxfordshire pile meant planning permission for a swimming pool was refused. A couple of years earlier, as prime minister, Johnson had decried the ‘newt counters’ responsible for holding back the development of homes across the UK.

The great crested newt has become a poster boy for wildlife conservationists. At up to 17cm long, it is the biggest of our amphibians, which includes three types of newts, two frogs and two toads – some of which went into the witches’ cauldron at the start of Macbeth (‘Eye of newt and toe of frog’). Of the three newts, the great crested variety is the most stunning. It is a shame that so few people get to see one unless they are lucky enough to live in certain parts of the country.

Triturus cristatus, to give it its Latin name, is a rather pedestrian black with white sides when viewed from above but underneath it goes from monochrome to Technicolor with a striking orange belly punctuated with black spots, each pattern unique like an amphibious fingerprint. It is the males that have a long wavy crest along the back and tail which they use during the breeding season to attract females, along with an athletic courtship routine which includes waving their tail around while standing on their front legs.

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