If you like to breed in water but also need to keep your skin moist when on land, what better place could you find to live than Cumbria!! Not surprisingly, all six native species of amphibian thrive in the county.
The Common Frog is widespread, even near the tops of mountains at over 800 metres. Colour can be variable from green to brown. Spawn (in the familiar large blobs) is usually laid in late February or early March, perhaps later in the colder fell tarns. Mating starts early – the photo below was taken at Walna Scar in the Coniston Fells on 18th February. To attract a mate the frog croaks, its white throat becoming engorged to make the noise (see photo above). Tadpoles are intitially black, like toad tadpoles, but become brown speckled with gold as they grow.
The Common Toad is a little less hardy, does not venture as high up the fells and prefers deeper water. Its spawn is laid in strings two or three weeks later than frog spawn. The Common Toad is well known for its long distance hikes (in procession) to return to its area of birth and there are many places where this has occurred for generations (let me know if you are aware of any!).
Cumbria has two of the largest colonies in England of the Natterjack Toad at Drigg and Sandscale Haws; indeed the twenty or so Cumbrian populations account for around 65% of the UK’s population (upto 25% at Sandscale alone). This comical yellow-striped toad (males have a throat with a blue sheen, whereas females have a white throat speckled black) prefers the seasonal shallow pools characteristic of sand dunes that warm up quickly in the sun, but is also found at 150 metres above sea level in the seasonal pools of Subberthwaite Common in the south-west foothills of the Lake District.
Newts are possibly under-recorded in the county, as they generally need some searching out. The Great-crested Newt is a protected BAP Priority species that breeds widely in the county. There are many breeding sites in the area between Ambleside and Milnthorpe and along the length of the Eden Valley, with more scattered places found on the north-west coastal plain. Ideally they would like ponds without fish, but increasingly seem to use garden ponds. Between April and late June a search with a torch at nighttime may yield a sighting – but REMEMBER it is illegal to catch them or even disturb them.
The smaller (about half size) Palmate Newt is possibly the most abundant in the county as it prefers acidic water – there’s plenty of that in the fells, but it is also found in lowland ponds, even in gardens, where it likes newer ponds with less well developed vegetation. The similar sized (both about 10 cm long) Smooth Newt is also common in the county, sometimes even in the same water body as the other two newt species! The best distinguishing feature is the spotted throat of the Smooth Newt – Palmate Newts have a plain throat. In the breeding season male Smooth Newts develop a crest but Palmate Newts do not – instead they have characteristic black, webbed hind feet and a fine filament projecting from the tip of the tail (these features show well in the photo below of the male Palmate Newt (upper) but are absent in the female Palmate (lower).
Newts lay their eggs singly on leaves, which are then wrapped round the egg. They hatch into larvae known as efts (below about 8 mm long, see below)- efts acquire their front legs first, unlike frog and toad tadpoles which acquire their back legs first. I believe “eft” derives from “ewt” the former name for a newt, but as “an ewt” was difficult to say it became “a newt” (a similar change happened in reverse when “a napron” became “an apron”)!