Now is the time to clean your pond because doing this during the winter months will cause minimum disturbance to wildlife. Although some frogs may be resting in the mud at the bottom, if you are careful you should not injure them. Toads and newts are in the water during the breeding season but they will now be hibernating in sheltered places on land. If you are lucky enough to have Great crested newts, which are now quite rare, they also will unlikely to be in your pond at this time of year, although this is not always true, so care is needed. They are protected by law and it is illegal to interfere with them in any way. Their breeding, hibernating and sheltering places should not be obstructed or damaged and, even if this happens through carelessness, you may be sent to prison for up to six months (!!) and fined £5,000 for each offence! A friend of mine discovered one under a stone in her chicken run and it is just as well she saw it before the inhabitants because it would have very quickly become an ex-newt and chickens don’t take kindly to prison corn rations, they turn nasty. Also, they are very bad savers and probably wouldn’t even have five pounds let alone five thousand!
Anyone who has Great crested newts on their land can apply for a licence from Natural England if an activity that may disturb the animals, or their habitat, is planned; help from an expert ecologist would also be needed.
We have three species of newts in Britain and the Great crested, also known as the Northern crested or Warty newt, is the largest; the other two are the Palmate and the smooth, or common. The Great crested can grow to be 15 cm (6 ins.) when mature, the female occasionally reaching 18 cm (7 ins.) They have distinctive ‘warty’ skins, dark brown or blackish above, with white spots on the flanks and orange or yellow, with dark blotches, underneath. At breeding time, in the spring, the male develops a jagged crest along the ridge of his back and white markings on his tail. He is very elaborate in his courtship and will display to rival males as well as females. The female lays 200 – 400 individual eggs in a season, wrapping each one in the leaf of a pond plant. What a lot of work! After 10 – 21 days half the number of eggs hatch into tadpoles, the rest are sterile due to a chromosome anomaly. In 3 – 4 months the hatchlings will change into juvenile newts, sometimes called efts, maturing in 2 – 3 years. Like all newts the Great crested feeds on a variety of invertebrates and will take fish and other tadpoles when in water. In turn the newts themselves are preyed upon by many birds, rats, badgers and hedgehogs even though, like toads, they are able to produce a toxin from their skin. So, should you come across one of these rare and protected animals, take care of it and move it away from the chickens!
Silver birch with witches’ brooms, Sheila Sims
Now that most trees have shed their leaves you may notice in some branches strange clusters of twigs that resemble untidy birds’ nests. They are known as witches’ brooms and are parasitic growths caused by bacteria or fungi. They can appear after bad pruning, which leaves the tree susceptible to invasion, or be transmitted by aphids and leaf-hoppers. One of the trees affected by witches’ brooms is the Silver birch and this one is caused by a fungus called Taphrina Tugida. These infections do not kill the trees they inhabit but do slow down growth and deprive them of nutrients as they grow from the tissues of the host. Many of them are years old and develop hard cores of wood which used to be valued by wood turners because the distorted pattern of the grain enabled them to produce beautiful objects and, as the name suggests, brooms were made from the clusters of flexible twigs. Although witches’ brooms will always be around, witches’ knickers probably won’t be quite as common now that plastic carrier bags are not freely available. Those that end up in trees are thought to actually be knickers lost by witches when they fly too close to the branches. (Come on, it must be true!)
A tree that was thought to guard against witches and other evils is the Holly and this one knows a thing or two. To protect itself against browsing animals, such as deer, it has evolved to develop two different types of leaves. The lower ones, within reach of the nibblers, are prickly, this is how we always think of holly, but if you look higher up, above the browsing level, you will see that the leaves are smooth and do not have sharp spines. Most other trees have shed their leaves for the winter and the browsers will be seeking out those that are still available, such as hollies which retain leaves throughout the year and although the animals would find the leaves tasty, because of the tree’s clever adaptation they would make a rather uncomfortable meal and so are avoided.
Along with Holly, other trees are brought into the house at Christmas and you may be harbouring more visitors than you actually invited to stay for the holiday. Researchers have found that a Christmas tree can contain thousands of hibernating insects. Nothing that is going to do any harm, but the warmth of your house will cause them to wake up, thinking that spring has come early. Because there is no food available for them they quickly dehydrate and die. Ah-h-h!
So, have a lovely Christmas and thank you for all your photos, observations and questions; keep them coming in 2016!
Best wishes from me and my three hooligan hounds.
Things to do this month (if you have any energy left) include:
• Guided walks – Thorpe & Cley Marshes.
• Many indoor talks & films on the Norfolk countryside.
Details: www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Wings over Titchwell, beginners birding, fabulous wildlife.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 210779.
• Wildlife Tours & Education run many interesting days out and weekends away. Also, if you are an employer and would like to treat your staff to something a bit different, they will arrange a trip to suit your needs. (Their packed lunches are to die for!)
www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
© Sheila Sims 2015