This account of a smooth newt found hibernating in an allotment in Co. Tipperary last November was sent in by Ireland’s Wildlife reader and avid gardener Andy Dawson and his young son Ethan. It’s a notable record, since the Irish Wildlife Trust’s National Newt Survey had received no newt records from Tipperary up to and including 2012. CJ
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in allotment gardening, or home growing of fruit and vegetables for the table; and nowhere more so than in Tipperary, where I live. This in turn has given rise to a whole new sub-culture of its own, a subversive green faction whose members huddle and talk passionately among themselves about such vital matters as pests, varieties and crop rotation.
I was admitted into this furtive sect myself in 2011.
But preparing and tending a vegetable garden is a year-round task, and it brings with it unexpected wildlife moments. The day I signed up for my allotment. A kestrel perched on a nearby post and watched me as I surveyed my new plot: surely a good omen if ever there was one. A frog, startling me by leaping out of my way as I clear weeds. A flock of curlews piercing the sky with their eerie call when I was out digging, alone, in January. Or the inevitable cheeky Robin, appearing close at hand as soon as I begin work to look for worms or slugs that I might turn up, and coming so close I could probably catch him in my hand if I were so inclined.
These moments are many, and they are part of the joy of it all, for both me and my seven-year-old son, Ethan.
Back in November 2013 I was chatting to a work colleague about the potato crop. Like most growers, we did well for spuds last year, with huge crops of big tubers. He told me that he and his boy had been digging up some potatoes the previous weekend, and had been surprised to meet a newt. He couldn’t be certain the creature had emerged from beneath the ground, but it had certainly appeared in front of him as he turned up the spuds; and it was all the more surprising as there was no body of water anywhere near.
The very next weekend, I took my boy out to our allotment to do some harvesting. We expected to take home some leeks, probably a cabbage and a turnip, and a bucket of spuds.
As I turned the first forkful of earth in search of our week’s supply of potatoes, what should emerge from the freshly-broken soil but a – well, a what? I thought it was perhaps a small viviparous lizard, but Ethan was sure it was a newt. Not quite three inches long, and orangey-brown. I happened to have my camera with me, and snapped off some stills; plus a few moments of video as Ethan carried it over to where he meant to release it. It climbed out of his little hand and leapt to freedom en route, quickly disappearing into the greenery. But we had the pictures.
A quick google that evening confirmed Ethan’s identification: it was, indeed, a newt. Just like my colleague, I had found it amidst the potatoes, and we, too, were far from the nearest body of water (in my case, about a quarter of a mile).
So why the apparent affinity of the newt for potato beds? Perhaps the freshly-broken soil just makes it easier to burrow down in search of a safe hibernation spot (only a few types of vegetable, including potatoes, force the gardener to actually break the soil this late in the year: cabbages and onions and so on grow on the surface).
Or is this all just a coincidence? I guess we’ll have to wait until next year’s harvest to find out.
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