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Alpine Newt

Alpine Newt by Terry Coult

The Alpine Newt Ichthyosaura alpestris is a medium sized newt, slightly longer and noticeably bulkier than Smooth Newt Lissotriton vulgaris or Palmate Newt Lissotriton helveticus. It occurs in the pet trade in the UK with the main subspecies available being the nominate form alpestris and the slightly more brightly-coloured apuanus. The dorsal colour is usually dark, almost black, though this can have a brown, green or bluish tinge. Additionally there is a faint mottling on the back though this is not always readily noticeable. The dorsal side is slightly rough and the overall impression from above is of a small Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus. Its ventral side is clearly delineated and a distinct, dense orange colour rather than the suffused orange appearance of the bellies of Smooth Newt or Palmate Newt. In the alpestris subspecies, there are no spots ventrally though apuanus may have spots on its ventral side (Steward, 1969).

While Alpine Newts are normally very dark dorsally, the Alpine Newts in the Eaglescliffe area are unusual in that the dorsal colour is usually brown, similar to that of typical Smooth/Palmate Newts though still with mottling present. A very small male found in a pond in Eaglescliffe by the author was initially of normal colouration but then changed to this light-brown colour within a few weeks.

The Alpine Newt is native to much of central, continental Europe and occurs up the coasts of northeast France through to Holland but it does not appear to have been native to the British Isles. As its name suggests it can be found in montane habitats up to 2,500 metres in altitude but it can also be abundant in lowlands, and it will use a variety of waterbodies including both shallow and deep ponds and slow flowing streams (Griffiths, 1995). Steward (1969) considers that it appears to be more adaptable than other newt species, wandering more widely from breeding habitats, being more inclined to enter water outside of the breeding season and being hardier than either Great Crested or Smooth Newts.

It is believed to have been introduced to Great Britain in the 20th century at an aquatic nursery in Newdigate in Surrey. Up until the 1970s this was regarded as the only colony in the UK (Lever, 1977). It has subsequently turned up in an increasing number of locations across England and has also been recorded in Scotland. The Non-Native Species Secretariat website described it as being established at 40 sites in Great Britain, as of March 2011 (www.defra.gov.uk). The known distribution of the species in northern England, including Yorkshire, was described in some detail by Bond and Haycock (2008). A small number of additional locations for the species in the North East have subsequently come to light, notably two garden ponds in South Shields and further ponds in the Eaglescliffe area. It has also recently been found to be present in garden ponds a little south of the region in the Whitby area (Martin Hammond, pers. comm., 2011).

Alpine Newts © Ian Bond

Historically its best known site in the North East has been Doxford Park in Sunderland (Banks, 1989). The author carried out a torch survey of part of the lake in Doxford Park in June 2007 and found the species still present. Five individuals were seen though it was impossible to get an estimate of the size of the population due to problems with access and visibility. Local children have reported catching “blue” newts from this pond (John Durkin, pers. comm., 2008) so it may be that the species is now more widely dispersed in the Sunderland area.

A garden pond in South Shields is known to have had Alpine Newts, along with the three native British newt species, for several years. These do not appear to have spread widely as a public survey of garden ponds by South Tyneside Council’s Countryside Service in 2007 found no evidence of them in spite of having had a good response from across the borough, including from garden ponds on the same estate as the known site. However in 2011 Alpine Newts turned up in a garden pond some 2.5 km away in another part of South Shields. This came to light when the house owner was surprised to find them in the pond in his garden and, on making enquiries, found that they had originated from the pond next door where his neighbour had some that he had been given (Gary Scott, pers. comm., 2011).

A single Alpine Newt was recovered from a wheel-wash facility at a landfill site at Carlin Howe near Guisborough in 2004 and brought to the author to confirm its identity. The complex of ponds at Carlin Howe had been the subject of several amphibian surveys over several years prior to 2004 due to the need to fill in and provide replacement ponds as part of the landfill operations. None of the surveys prior to 2004 found any definite records of Alpine Newts and it remains to be seen whether this newt was an isolated individual or part of a population.

The main area for Alpine Newts in the North East, if not the UK, is around Eaglescliffe, a large suburb in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees. The species is known to have been present on one estate, east of the A135, since the 1990s and has been found in ponds in several gardens on that estate. More recently it has been found in two suburban ponds about 500 metres further west and crucially on the other side of the busy A135 road that runs from Stockton to Yarm. It is therefore reasonably likely that the species will be present in other garden ponds throughout Eaglescliffe.

MARS Alpine Newt

Alpine Newts are also established in three sites in that area that are managed for nature conservation:

  • Eiliff’s Mill is a small complex of ponds next to an allotment site. The size of the Alpine Newt population there is not known, but the site is a Local Wildlife Site on account of its having all five native North East amphibian species.
  • Coatham Stob is a large Forestry Commission woodland plantation of fairly recent origin with a series of ponds, mainly recently excavated, on either side of the Burnwood Beck. Small numbers of Alpine Newts were found in two of the ponds on the south side of the Beck by the author in 2009, though none were found in any of the ponds north of the Beck at that time.
  • Elementis is also a Local Wildlife Site on account of its amphibian populations, which were annually censused over a period of years. Alpine Newts were first recorded at Elementis in 2003 and by 2007 had increased in number and colonised all of the ponds. This led to concerns that the decline in the numbers of Palmate Newts on the site may have been related to the increase in Alpine Newts. A decision was taken to reduce the numbers of Alpine Newts and in October 2009 400 adult newts were removed from a single pond (Maxine Reid, pers. comm., 2009). This may have done little to diminish its numbers in that area as in 2011 an ecological survey of a site at Urlay Nook less than one km away from both Elementis and Coatham Stob found large numbers of Alpine Newts, estimated to be well into four figures (Graeme Skinner, pers. com., 2012).

There are other examples of Alpine Newts achieving good numbers in ponds and Beebee (2007) expressed surprise that they have not spread widely in Britain already. In the North East, populations still appear to be very localised and there is no evidence that they are spreading far by themselves. Even in the Eaglescliffe area it is thought that much of the species distribution could be due to movement of pond plants as that is known to have occurred between various of the sites.

An extreme example of the Alpine Newt’s ability to colonise was demonstrated in the author’s own garden pond. In 2005 the author bred Alpine Newts in captivity, rearing 12 to the eft stage. The first two of the larvae to turn into terrestrial efts climbed through the mesh on the lid of their tank and escaped into the garden. In order to avoid a repeat of this the remainder of the larvae were then brought indoors. In 2010 whilst sweep netting the pond to count the Smooth Newts the author caught a single male Alpine Newt. Repeated searches found a total of a further five Alpine Newts in 2011 and two in 2012. This meant that the two efts had been a male and a female, both had survived to maturity and managed to breed. While the Alpine Newts caught so far have been removed to captivity it will be necessary to continue sweeping the pond for several years to remove any further cohorts that might occur due to any second generation breeding. As noted above, the species sometimes features in the herpetological trade and an advert in a North East newspaper in 2011 offered “For sale, captive bred adult alpine newts … Will breed in aquarium or pond, South Shields”. It is likely then that new populations will continue to become established across the North East.

by Ian Bond