There’s More to a Raccoon Than a Davey Crockett Hat.

A Scottish wildlife organisation recently took a picture that might help save the planet – well, the Highlands of Scotland at least. It was on one of those automatic cameras used to monitor animals – and triggered on 17th March 2016 by a Procyon lotor – that’s a raccoon for those of us who don’t have the Latin – standing on it’s hind feet it looked as if it was feeding on some form of bait attached to a post: www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-35942952     The image is technically limited and in contrasty black and white, but there is no doubting this is a raccoon. Baiting certainly works when it comes to attracting raccoons to cameras, but this shouldn’t be possible in the U.K. where they are not supposed to be, and catching one on camera is a real surprise when what you’re really expecting to see is a badger.

If you've seen a raccoon in the U.K. and don't get a picture... they'll tell you it is one of these...
If you seen a raccoon in the U.K. and you don’t get a picture… they’ll tell you that you saw one of these.

Failing a deliberate release, this Highland raccoon must have escaped from captivity, but that’s not exactly an environmental disaster, providing it’s not a pregnant female, or has the opportunity to meet up with a raccoon of the opposite sex… And what are the chances of that? Well, surprisingly good it seems, because a week earlier, on the 11th March, a raccoon was recorded on video just thirty miles away. The same raccoon perhaps? Well possibly, but that’s a bit of a hike for a raccoon in just a week; although when food is in short supply a healthy animal might range that distance, especially if it is a recent roaming escapee that has not yet found a favourable place to set up home. If it turns out there are two raccoons however, this could be the start of a much bigger problem.

A young racoon living appropriately where he belongs in North America.
A young racoon living appropriately where he belongs in North America.

I saw my first raccoon as a child – it was perched upon Davey Crockett’s head in a mid 1950s movie that made the most famous backwoodsman of all time a huge box office success in Britain – there was also a popular song that kept ‘The King of the Wild Frontier’ popular for a time – although I’m not sure how long – when you’re small things seem to go on forever. It lasted until the Lone Ranger and Tonto showed up on our T.V. screens to replace him. And surprisingly the Lone Ranger would continue with Crockett’s raccoon theme. More than half a century separated the two characters (and quite bit of fiction);  the raccoon hat had been replaced by a white stetson, with the raccoon identity slipping down onto the rangers face in the form of a raccoon mask – this along with an outfit rather too tight for general ‘lone ranging’ comfort, made the character somewhat laughable even to a child. It seemed that back in the old days whether, ‘way down South’ or out there in ‘the wild west’ you were never far from a raccoon, or at least a reference to one, and today this remains pretty much the case right across North America and there is a suggestion that in some states there are more raccoons around today than there were during the 19th Century when fur trapping was hugely consequential.

A raccoon in natural habitat on the North East Coast of North America.
A wild raccoon in its natural habitat somewhere south of Boston.

Raccoons are generalists: if they can find food, they will usually adapt to their surroundings and live almost anywhere. In their native land they avoid only the extreme cold of the frozen north and have managed to become one of the most successful mammals ever to have lived on the continent. In urban situations they have become equally successful, and often considered pests because of their habit of competing with humans.

I must admit, I don’t feel too much competition from the large individual that walks the fence-line around our garden. My family and I live in the Vancouver area of British Columbia where raccoons are commonplace – and not only is this individual a real beauty, it is also one of the largest racoons I have ever seen. Certainly in the northwest racoons can grow to about as big as this species will get. Further south where winters are warmer and summers hotter – in Florida and Mexico for example – a large body mass isn’t so important for retaining body heat and individuals are usually smaller.

Raccoons are mostly active during the night and our local animals will occasionally dig up the garden for grubs, but I don’t mind that. My habit of leaving the garage door open will have to stop though.  I accidentally shut a domestic cat into my garage one night when living in the U.K. – the cat wasn’t bothered, and apart from a slight smell of cat the garage was fine, the same thing happened with an owl when living in New Zealand – again no problem – although the cat smell was replaced by a pile of poo under the roost were the bird had chosen to spend the night. All well and good, but if I accidentally shut a raccoon into my garage overnight in Canada, I might just as well opened up the place up to a marauding bear.

Not the best of pictures - taken by a sympathetic observer who picked up my stills camera and grabbed this shot. This was probably my first attempt at filming raccoons. The two youngsters started off infront of the camera, but attracted by the sparkle of small bits and pieces in my camera case they quickly became less than ideal subjects. I had almost no recollection of this event until I discovered the old picture, obviously my subconcious had blotted out this wildly unsuccessful raccoon filming encounter.
Maybe not the best of pictures – taken many years ago by a sympathetic observer who picked up my stills camera and grabbed this shot as I wrestled with a couple of raccoons. The two youngsters started off infront of the camera, but attracted by the sparkle of the small bits and pieces in my camera case, they quickly became less than ideal subjects. I had no recollection of the event until I recently re-discovered this photo –  obviously my subconscious had blotted out my first and most wildly unsuccessful raccoon filming encounter, somewhere in Vermont.

I loved the suggestion from a spokesman for the attempted capture of the photogenic Scottish raccoon, that, if it could be achieved without personal risk, it would be great if somebody simply contained the creature in a shed or outbuilding. Now, containing a raccoon is  a novel idea – but the last shed I walked through that might adequately ‘contain’ a raccoon was on the island of Alcatraz – maybe Scottish sheds are a cut above the sheds I got used to when living in the South of England as a child; back then you had to turf the wildlife out before you could put the garden tools away; and the door was always left open during the summer months because robins were busy rearing young in an old teapot on a shelf at the back.

A spokesman also said that their organisation had set a humane trap to catch the Highland raccoon…  but there had been no sign of it yet, and that’s not a huge surprise. All too frequently raccoons are caught and held by unpleasant limb holding traps, but getting a raccoon secure in an humane alternative isn’t quite so easy: if you don’t capture your raccoon first time around you may not get a second chance – raccoons clearly didn’t spread across a whole continent because they were stupid.

A recent digital image - and an impossible shot to make successfully on film in very low light conditions. How can you resist these critters, trying to bat one another off a low branch - just for fun!
A digital image taken recently. This is a difficult shot to make successfully on film because it was taken in very low light. How can you resist these little critters? Trying to bat one another off of a low branch just for fun! Their rotund body shape belying an extraordinary ability to balance.

Over the years I’ve photographed, filmed and videod raccoons in many different situations, both captive and wild and there was rarely a moment when they weren’t attempting the impossible.

When filming cheetahs, you can spend days sitting around waiting for them to move, and you’re thinking ‘Just do something interesting… Something I can film… Anything other than just gazing into the far distance!’. Then after a couple of days they will get up and go for a mobile lunch and you can hardly keep up, even in a Land Rover. Raccoons on the other hand are the exact opposite, when they are awake, they never stop moving – sure they rest up, but if a raccoon isn’t hidden away having a kip, it will usually be ambling along doing something interesting, and providing you aren’t hassling the creature, you can usually keep pace on foot.

With cheetahs - there's a lot of sitting around waiting.
Cheetahs are just about my favourite animal – they are beautiful, but there’s a lot of sitting around waiting, and to be honest… they can sometimes be rather dull.

A raccoon is an inquisitive creature – brighter than a rat, a cat, or a dog, they have a never say die attitude that provides an easy fit for those who think they’re a little bit like us… and in some ways, perhaps they are. It doesn’t make sense zoologically, but it’s fun to think of the raccoon species as evolving along a different route to create a creature that ostensibly does things the way we do, but without the advantage of starting from a primate.

Their little paws are superficially hand-like and with great sensitivity   can manipulate objects – in particular food, and their alert little brains will get them into just about everything, which helps them survive in all manner of circumstances. It all sounds familiar – especially the little brains!… We can anthropomorphise them to our hearts content and that’s certainly the reason they make such good cartoon characters… we relate to them, and their little bandit masks in particular trigger our imaginations. They appear to us as devilish little bandits behaving without restraint, which is exactly the mindset of any raccoon worth its salt – as anybody who has ever tried to keep one will tell you. 

Another raccoon in a natural situation in Canada.
Raccoons in a natural situations do not shy away from water – this one is Canadian.

If you’re thinking that keeping a raccoon should be on your bucket list… forget it! It takes a very forgiving nature to become a raccoon’s best buddy. There are however people – like Dorcas MacClintock, who have managed to do so successfully, and on numerous occasions. In the mid-1980s Dorcas became my mentor in all things raccoon related; somehow she managed to bridge the gap between art and science; as both an award winning sculptor, and a respected mammalogist she had moved beyond the simplistic recording and analysis of racoons as living organisms to see the bigger picture. Dorcas also has a sense of humour which is not only helpful, but an absolute necessity when dealing with raccoons. David Niven once said of his friend Errol Flynn, that you always knew where you were with Flynn because he would always let you down – and that’s more or less the way it is with raccoons – you can’t  just turn your back and expect them to sit quietly – they’re going to get into mischief.

I had to empty the bookcase for my impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock's book (left) 'A Natural History of Raccoons' is well worth searching out. I had to empty the bookcase to find my own impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock's book is to the left; her 'A Natural History of Raccoons' is well worth searching out to learn more about this interesting creature.
I had to empty the bookcase to find my impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock’s book is to the left: ‘A Natural History of Raccoons’  and is well worth searching out if you want to learn more about these interesting creatures.

Dorcas taught me how best to understand what a raccoon will do next, which is essential when trying to film them. I learnt how to second guess their behaviour and anything Dorcas had forgotten to tell me, she had already written down in a book which she gave me. I learnt for example that you don’t try to stop raccoons from doing just about anything they want, instead you divert their attention with something more interesting and usually, that something is food.

A wild raccoon in a not quite so wild urban setting in the U.S.A.. The only part of the set up is extra lighting and  extra food, although dumped food is not exactly unusual in any unrban situation.
A wild raccoon in a not so wild urban setting somewhere in the U.S.A.. The only part that is set up is extra lighting plus a little extra food, although finding dumped food is not exactly unusual in today’s urban landscape.

The truth is, I usually leave the captive raccoon diverting to somebody else because it’s a full time job and I just do my best to record the action. Working with a wild raccoon is pretty much the same – you grab what you can, because if a raccoon is doing anything, it’s most definitely worth running the camera.

With a racoon in the wild there is no doubting that the setting is natural, but with a captive animal, which parts of the process touch base with reality? Well, whatever a raccoon does is his or her own reality… because they will never do anything that they don’t want to, or anything that doesn’t come naturally. So, if the intention is to demonstrate some aspect of behaviour, I don’t think filming a captive raccoon is a major deceit, but if you are supposedly telling the life story of a wild animal and filming most of it on a set, essentially what you have is a soap opera, which is fine, but of no particular interest to me.

This is a raccoon on an open outdoor set, his name was Wille and he's been given water and appropriate food - so that I can film him dabbling - searching with his front paws and then washing his food.
This raccoon was cared for by Dorcas and his name was Willie. He was filmed on an open outdoor set with an artificial pool and given appropriate food so that he could dabble – that’s essentially searching for food in water using the front paws. There is some question as to whether this continues through to actually washing a potential meal – but that’s certainly the way it looks to us. Interestingly, Willie isn’t looking down too much, instead  he relies on his sensitive paws to feel what he is doing and appears entirely absorbed in his food gathering activity – but with his head up, he remains aware of his surroundings – even if, as is the case for all raccoons – he is rather short sighted.

The thing about filming natural activity is that unless you plan to make a twelve hour nature film, there has to be some editing, and I’m more worried about that than many other aspects of the process. One very good reason for editing your own material is that there is a better chance of telling the truth, simply because you were there. The alternative and often preferential route is to put a story together from bits and pieces filmed over a period of time, and some professional film makers might say that it will be a dull story if it isn’t done in this way. Which might be the case, but I think it far more interesting and informative to watch things the way they really happened. There is however compromise to any edit –  it might be necessary for example to drop  a close up in to move the action along, and so keeping the flow authentic is a constant challenge.

The viewer is always in the hands of the movie-maker, who has the option to tell it as it is, or alternatively, make a story up, and  to a point there is always a degree of manipulation. Secondly, nature isn’t    simply about getting bloody in tooth and and claw – animals attacking has become fashionable on both television and the internet, but watching animals going about their daily lives demonstrates that there is a lot more going on. Just as with us, everyday activities may not be quite as exciting as a battle, but raccoons tend to do things with more gusto than most and their behaviour is often comic, a combination that will always provide cinematographic value.

This YouTube of a raccoon dabbling is captivating, but clearly not of a captive animal – without edits the action retains a feeling of authenticity.  You might not want to watch the same behaviour for an hour, but a short clip like this is absorbing, and you learn something about the habits of a wild animal:  raccoon dabbling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0lI3ub3DI8

This is a wide view of Willie that shows him on the set I had built - you can see a flag to the left of frame (this used to take light out of an area - which might sound odd, but is a good way to create shadow where it is required. Filmed in daylight, it can also be used as a night scene. I dropped two f stops to create the mood (seen in the closer shot above). I could also have blued it for night, but have left that for the producer to make that decision as it may also be done in post production.
Here is a wide view of Willie, showing him on a set built for a dabbling sequence – you can see a metal flag to the left of frame (used to create a shadow in one particular area). Filmed in daylight, the image might also be used as a night scene by dropping the aperture a couple of f stops to create a darker mood (this shown below). I could also have blued up the image for night, but have left that for the producer to decide, as a final decision can be made later… and it also gives the producer a chance to make a contribution! O.K., just kidding!
Here the exposure is taken down to give the impression of night - it might be taken down further and blued - this is why it is important to light the areas of action precisely - as you need to see what is going on. I could have also done the sequence at night and lit that. The technical possibilities are endless and all without changing the raccoons natural behaviour.
When the exposure is taken down it can give the impression that this is night time and might be taken down even further and blued up for a cooler night time feel, this darkening of the image is the reason that it is important that the light is directed precisely towards where the action is happening, because above all else, the viewer must be able to see what is going on. Another option would have been to film the sequence at night and light appropriately, or use an infra-red camera. The technical possibilities are endless, but most importantly, they don’t change the raccoon’s natural behaviour. Working today with video many people are inclined to record exactly what they see through the view finder, often in low light conditions, which gives a very narrow depth of field (that’s overall focus front to back). It is quite tricky juggling light levels to create a mood on film, especially when the final image isn’t visible to you through the view finder which is the way it usually is if you are lighting creatively. Our eyes can read light levels more broadly than film stock and that’s useful, and without it, going to the movies wouldn’t be half so interesting.

Whether in captivity or in the wild raccoons appear delighted to have something to do – it is simply in their nature.   Out in the wild, much of what they attempt seems destructive to us, but really they are just making a living much the same as we do when going about our business, except that we trash quite a bit more of the environment than they do in the process. I understand why many people view them as a nuisance, nevertheless it is ironic that as we start to move into their world they have a habit of pushing back, and at some level, you have to admire that.

This is a wild raccoon. I watched his progress from behind, worked out that he was going for a swim -ran along the bank and found a bridge and returned to catch him arriving on the bank from the front. I could see it in his eyes - 'Oh, it's you again!'
This raccoon was photographed in the wild. I watched her progress towards the water ahead, and worked out the position she was most likely to enter the water – then ran along the bank of the stream, found a bridge and made my way close to the spot where I thought she would arrive on the opposite bank. I could see it in her eyes – ‘Oh no, it’s you again!’ But I was long gone before her arrival.

In all honesty, if you take a picture of a raccoon in its native country you probably won’t contribute very much to saving the planet, but if you live outside of North America and get a shot of one in the wild, it might prove very important to conservation. Certainly if this species takes off in Britain – a place where raccoons really don’t belong – they would undoubtedly compete with native species that are already under pressure and their presence create environmental havoc. If a raccoon really did think and behave exactly the way that we do, he’d probably be saying ‘ Nice one… Bring it On!’ But in truth, Rocky is just doing what all raccoons naturally do… and he doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other. 

 

 

As Dismissed As a Newt.

There was a man on the Radio today talking about great crested newts, and that got me listening carefully, because for many years I had an eventful relationship with these fascinating creatures;  which might sound odd, but not entirely ridiculous considering that this was the first animal I filmed for prime time television, and the fact that I was suddenly earning a living from what most regarded as a pointless childhood interest at least impressed my father.

My parents were tolerant of my preoccupation with all things amphibian, even allowing me to keep a tank of salamanders in their bedroom – suitable because it was north facing and cool during the summer months; but at the time there was no indication the little creatures that arrived as a gift, would be around for more than 25 years and produce quite so many offspring.

Although I wasn’t obsessive about keeping amphibians, their behaviour fascinated me. My introduction came through a neighbour when I was about eight years old; she worked in a plant nursery and noticed a pond where large numbers of newts were engaged in courtship. She offered to bring some home for me to observe, and I didn’t need to be asked twice, quickly organising an old fish tank to house them, and a regular supply of earthworms to keep them fed.

The first newts I kept as a child were smooth newts, at the time relatively common. This male is at his most  crested and colourful and has just a mass of frog spawn on which he has been feeding and no doubt cutting down any competition for his offspring by taking out future frog tadpoles.
The first anphibians I observed as a child were smooth newts – at the time they were relatively common. This male has been feeding on a mass of frog spawn  to the right; taking in this high protein meal will also reduce competition for his future offspring.

I couldn’t believe my luck when they arrived – newts are nothing much to look at on land, but as soon as they enter water, their transformation is extraordinary – and I was surprised how much there was to learnt by simply watching them: I noticed for example, that an amorous male would delay coming up for air when he was busy flickering his tail at a potential mate, but if she remained indifferent, he would eventually have to break away and rocket to the surface for a gulp of air, then quickly return before another male could engage her.

The male smooth newt is a beautiful creature that most of us remain indifferent to  - essentially we have a goldfish mentality and until that aesthetic changes, amphibians will remain in general decline.
The smooth newt in full courtship spleandour is an impressive creature that most of us will never encounter. The majority of us would in any case prefer to see a goldfish and until our ‘goldfish’ mentalities take an aesthetic turn for the better, amphibians will continue to be in general decline.

At their best amphibians are quite beautiful and they have uncomplicated lifestyles that can be easily analysed – which makes for an entrancing combination. Not so much for my grandfather though who said he wouldn’t visit again until I ditched ‘the dreadful creatures’. Needless to say I didn’t see him again until early summer when the newts had finished their reproductive phase and left the water; they were then transferred to an overgrown part of the garden from where they would eventually find their way to our fish pond each spring to reproduce; and, if the pond still exists, their descendants will still be doing that.

This North American red salamander is also very colourful, but many species are less inclined to be dandies.
This North American red salamander is very colourful, but there are many other species that are not such dandies, retaining drabber colours to avoid attention..

In North America newts are referred to as salamanders, but in Europe the name is restricted to the really colourful ones that dress as court jesters – usually in black and yellow – essentially a warning that say’s ‘Don’t eat me, or l’ll make you vomit’. This colour combination is a worldwide warning displayed by many small animals likely to make a potential lunch for hungry predators: spiders, bees, wasps, beetles and others all make use of this contrasting colour combo, and although many predators don’t see in colour in the same way that we do, it is a defence mechanism that seems to work. 

A female European spotted salamander comes to water to give birth to her offspring.
A plump female European spotted salamander comes to water to give birth.

Imagine you’re a peasant living in central Europe long before the internet, television, or even the radio – infact so long ago candles are the latest thing. It’s a cold winter’s night and you throw a log on the fire, and pretty soon, in the flickering light of the rekindled embers, a strange creature walks out onto the hearth. It’s no more than a salamander rudely awoken from a peaceful winter’s slumber, but you don’t know that because science hasn’t been invented yet, or at least it hasn’t where you live – halfway up a mountain somewhere at the back end of Austria. You’re naturally terrified because you still organise your life around the time-honoured habit of superstition, and on seeing the creature, you know you’ve been stricken by a curse. Months later a very old man dies in the village, or perhaps a crop fails… it doesn’t matter… bad things happen because this is the Middle Ages, and everything can be traced back to that fateful encounter with the devil’s fire creature. If only you could have looked it up on the internet, but no…  just like my grandfather, you were living in the past and totally ignorant of just how interesting a salamander can be. Today, this rubbery little animal seems far less terrifying, but is still sometimes referred to as a fire salamander.

 Britain has only three native species of newt

and none are court jesters. It isn’t so much that newts lack colour, but rather that a great many restrict bright colouration to their bellies. Once again black and yellow or black and orange are colours that might be flashed as a warning and as an opulent display might also be helpful during courtship, but colour can also be a bit of a giveaway, which has led to many species retaining muted upper-sides, to reduce predatory attacks from above.

A newt or salamander that isn't careful can end up inside one of these.
A newt or salamander that isn’t careful might end up inside one of these.
To exist alongside herons and many other predators amphibians usually produce large numbers of offspring and all are of the larval stages are initially tied to the water.
To maintain an existence alongside herons and other predators amphibians usually produce large numbers of offspring with their larval stages tied to the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly, most people dismiss newts as rather boring, probably because they are only noticed when they come to breeding ponds during the spring. Water is necessary during reproduction, but outside of that many will remain land based, hiding away during the day under logs, in crevices, or in the soil, venturing out only on damp nights to feed.

The second species I came into contact with in my childhood was the palmate newt, so named because courting males develop a sooty black webbing between the toes of their hind-feet. Palmates are the smallest of the three British species and I first noticed them in water filled tyre ruts when out picnicking with my parents in the New Forest, where heathland soils provide an acidic environment that the palmates seem well adapted to.

A pair of palmate newts, the female above right and the male below left.
A pair of palmate newts, the female above right, the male below left.

Nerdy information on Identification which some may choose to skip:

during spring, smooth newt males develop a complete crest along the back and tail; palmate males do not, they have a small crest along the tail; but nothing along the back, instead there are two small ridges that run along the upper sides of the body producing a rather boxy shape in cross-section, this in contrast to the rounded curves of smooth newt males and the females of all the other British species. Palmate males have a strong black bar marking running through the eye and a little black pointer that develops at the tip of of the tail. Smooth newts may also have an eye bar, but this is often less pronounced.

The black hind feet and the tail pointer in palmate males makes identification easy, but the females are less easily differentiated from smooth newt females; I remember trying to explain the key differences to an expert just before he was about to give a broadcast on the subject, but for the most part it is a question of experience. The female palmate, just like the male, has a pinkish tinge down the centre of the tail bordered above and below by a darker, often jagged line – but this feature can be very subtle. Outside of the breeding season newts become solitary and maintaining these visual signals is no longer necessary and they become muted or disappear altogether. 

A palmate female plays pat-a-cake with her hind feet to determine whether she will lay an egg and decides against it - perhaps she judges the leaf too slender to hide or support her egg.
A palmate female plays pat-a-cake with her hind feet to determine whether she will lay an egg and decides against it; perhaps she judges this leaf too slender to hide or support her egg.

The largest of the three British species is the great crested newt,

which has become one of Britain’s most controversial animals; the reason for this relates almost entirely to politics and money, but more about that later. Identifying a great crested from a smooth or palmate is easy – because a mature great crested newt is about twice the size of the other two and reaches about 16 cm in length. The upper body is dark and warty with spots that are darker still –  these continue to the orange underside where they make a striking combination. There are sometimes white speckles on the face and along the lower sides of the body, and the male has a white bar that runs along the centre of the tail during courtship and the body crest is clearly serrated – all features that make identification a doddle. 

A female great crested newt, her abdomen full of eggs.
A female great crested newt, her abdomen full of eggs.

In the mid-1970s the Sunday Times published an article I submitted on the status of great crested newts in Britain. It ended with an informal survey, asking readers to give details of any great crested ponds they knew of in their area.

The response went well beyond expectation – it seemed that great crested newts were more widely distributed than had been previously thought – it really was great crested news! That was until I travelled to look into some of the ponds that readers had mentioned, only to discover that in many cases smooth newts were being misidentified as great crested newts, which seemed impossible to me, if only because of the clear size difference, the warts and the obvious crest serrations that smooth newt males clearly don’t have. Disappointingly, far too many observations were unreliable and I began to think that some people would have had trouble differentiating a big newt from a baby crocodile, and there were a few who would have been pushed to make a reliable I.D. against a hippopotamus. Even today the great crested newt’s status in Britain is in question, which is an unusual situation for a species that many consider to be in need of protection.

Newts discard their old wet suits.. or are they dry suits, I'm not sure?
Newts discard their old wet suits… Or are they dry suits? I’m not sure.

Back in the 1970s making a film wasn’t something that many people could afford to do. Between 1974 and 1977 I managed to put together a couple of movies which proved both time consuming and expensive. Today, working on video would have made the process far easier – even a phone can turn out some pretty impressive results, but back then, getting hold of a 16mm film camera (for broadcast quality), and buying filmstock, was a money pit .Half my monthly income was going towards buying just ten minutes of film running time, and it would take several years to shoot a movie devoted entirely to British reptiles and amphibians… How stupid was that? Working on a subject with such limited appeal seemed foolish… but then I got lucky.

Great crested newts are difficult for most of us to appreciate - there lifestyles mean that we don't see them very often.
Great crested newts like many other amphibians are difficult to appreciate, because their lifestyles dictate that we don’t see them very often.

The B.B.C. Natural History Unit became involved in a series that David Attenborough had been wanting to make for some time –  a television presenter during the 1950s and early 60s, he’d moved into management but now wished to return to the subject that interested him most. The result would emerge in 1979 as ‘Life on Earth’. and it was my good fortune that the series included a film dedicated entirely to amphibians. The producer of the programme, Richard Brock, was brave enough to allow me to film the British amphibians that were to be included, and in the grand scheme of things my contribution would be small, but my sequences would nevertheless involve months of work.

I had been in the right place at the right time and fortunately, the amphibians programme was selected to represent the series for publicity purposes. These cold-blooded animals had turned out to be rather more interesting than most people had thought possibe and the programme won a number of awards, but by that time I was too busy filming other projects to look back,  although I fully appreciated that for me, amphibians had been an unlikely but useful start.

An edible frogs eye. The amphibian eye is very beautiful, but it gives little away.
An edible frogs eye. The amphibian eye is often very beautiful, but it gives little away.

When I first met Richard Brock he told me all about ‘Frogs Law’ a term that had come to signify one of the biggest problems to be faced when filming amphibians – they are essentially unpredictable and usually move only after the camera has stopped runnning; there is not a glimmer in an amphibian eye that will tell you they are going to do something before they do. Animals further up the food chain usually give themselves away somewhere around the eyes, but a frog or salamander will give you nothing, and it isn’t as if they have the flat dead eyes  of a shark – quite the opposite – amphibians display some of the most beautiful eyes in the animal world. The truth of the matter is, that if you spend hundreds of hours watching any animal, you eventually learn to pick up on something and run the camera appropriately. Good to know then that all those hours of watching during childhood, weren’t entirely wasted. 

A male great crested newt displays to a receptive female. He will arch his body, waggle his tail and often thrash violently towards her. This soon clouds the water, so much so, it is impossible to film - here, he has cleaned away most of the detritus  on the gravel around him
A male great crested newt displays to a receptive female. He will arch his body, waggle his tail and often thrash violently towards her. This soon clouds the water, so much so, that it is often impossible to film, and here he has cleaned away most of the detritus on the gravel around him.

Sometimes a male newt displays to a female and she isn’t responsive to his love dance. Perhaps the male doesn’t suit her, or maybe she just isn’t ready, in which case she will usually break away, but often she will just hang around; there is something almost imperceptible about her body language that tells you there is no chance of getting the shot today… maybe tomorrow… and this understanding saves both time and money. Certainly you can’t afford to miss the action, but on the other hand, you can’t watch newts 24 hours a day, because down that road lies only madness.

If you fail to recognise when the female becomes receptive you won’t catch the moment when the male releases his little packet of sperm, after which he will back away still displaying as the female moves forward to pick up the packet on her cloaca. The male knows exactly when to make his release, and if you can’t pre-judge his behaviour and run the camera appropriately, you’re pretty soon looking for another job. And there’s another problem – amphibians respond to chemical signals – pheremones that have been released into the water, but you have only newt body language and the clock to go on – usually when one thing happens, something else will follow. Newts are little reproductive computing machines that with careful observation, are not beyond our understanding.

 I filmed my first T.V. newt on 12th February 1977 before filling in the details on a dope sheet wondering if ‘dope’ specifically applied to me – fortunately, it did not. I labelled the roll, ‘Test. Great Crested Newt. Daylight.’ and sent it off to the lab for processing – my wildlife filming career had started. 

Two females laying their fertilised eggs in the roll of a leaf - they pad the egg in with their hind feet until it is glued into place, which is wonderful to see. Later they may sniff at eggs and eat those that weren't laid by them. Millions of years ago these simple actions evolved snd this mechanistic behaviour appears totally orrganised but requires very little cognitive input.
Two females laying their fertilised eggs in the roll of a leaf – they pad the egg in with their hind feet until it is glued into place, which is wonderful to see. Later they will sniff at eggs and sometimes eat the ones that have not been laid by them. Millions of years ago these simple actions evolved and this mechanistic behaviour, although totally organised, requires very little cognitive input. 

So, back to the man on the radio – he’s outlining the  fact that great crested newts are less common in some parts of Europe than they are in the U.K. and consequently may not require as much protection as they presently receive from European law. For some time great cresteds have been protected under British law, but since the late 1980s they’ve also received an extra layer of care from Brussels due to a policy known as ‘The Habitats Directive’. Under this ruling, 18% of natural habitats in European countries are now under protection. The question is – if Britain opts out of the European Community, will great crested newts suffer because the European Directive no longer applies to them?

The developing larvae of a great crested newt sometimes known as an eft.
The developing larvae of a great crested newt is known as an eft.

I don’t know enough about environmental policy to be certain either way, but clearly the man on the radio was being reasonable. His company built a reservoir, in an area where several ponds had existed that at one time had probably been visited by great crested newts. Under ‘The European Directive’ these ponds had to be monitored, and if great crested newts were found present, these would have to be relocated. The whole process took a couple of years to complete and in the end only 10 great crested newts were found – the conclusion was that the cost of conserving each newt was six thousand five hundred pounds, but the company representative wasn’t making a fuss about that; instead he focused his attention on the newt habitat that had been created and on the whole his attitude was commendable.

This eft still has gills, but has fully developed functional lungs and gulping air, it will soon be leaving the water.
This eft still has gills, but now has lungs and will soon be leaving the water.

There are however issues concerning the relocation of species that are troubling.

Newts aren’t like higher mammals, which might sound obvious, but what is relevant in this case is how their populations are maintained. If only 10 newts are found in a habitat, and say only four of them are females, between them these individuals might lay around 1,200 eggs during a single spring. Certainly predation will take a toll, but amphibian populations often bounce back very quickly – it’s a numbers game; and not withstanding the problems that a reduction in the gene pool may cause, amphibians have a better chance of surviving a decline to very low numbers than do animals with much lower reproduction rates, and so protecting 10 newts as opposed to 10 bears or 10 tigers, may result in a much more successful outcome. The truth is, the success of a species that has suffered massive decline depends to a large extent on what that species is.

Newts usually move on land under the cover of darkness, and can look less impressive once out of the water.
Newts usually move on land under the cover of darkness, and look far less impressive once out of the water.

In Britain I was fortunate enough to have great crested newts in my garden and know how difficult they are to find. Clearly the best time to move them successfully is when they have returned to the pond during the spring, although this species may remain in the water for extended periods throughout the year. There will however always be immature individuals not yet ready to visit the pond and these are always difficult to locate. Away from water newts are masters of hiding – on occasions I’ve found great cresteds a foot down under soil and one perfectly healthy individual was discovered living five feet down a drain. Even when captive in a tank of moss and soil newts are difficult to find and care must be taken to avoid physical damage when searching them out. In an expansive natural habitat locating every individual is impossible to achieve and the loss of a great many immatures will adversely affect the population in years to come. I know from experience that relocation works, but it should perhaps be regarded as a last resort rather than accepted as a matter of course. As a conservation  tool, it is simply better than doing nothing at all.

The presence of a wild animal should on occasions be enough to keep an environment intact and perhaps we shouldn’t move into every location available to us, just because we feel the need to expand – there is a strange arrogance in thinking that the whole planet is there for us to colonies and trash as we please. Great crested newts are just one small part of a complex natural ecosystem and the idea that we should move them or their environment any time that suits us is flawed. Creating habitats for plant and animal populations to expand into can work very well, but moving the complxity of the natural world around like some giant game of musical chairs lacks forethought – ultimately the only species left with a seat might be us and our attendant parasites, thus limiting the sort of games we might be left to play in future.

A salamander in the wrong place. This axolotl was found by my friend Chris Balcombe in a pond in the New Forest. Southern England. It would be more at home in a cave in Mexico, but pets that get dumped don't always get a choice. This species remains in the larval form and can reproduce successfully without ever growing up. This one was very healthy, very big and steadily eating its way through all of the native species and their offspring until it was removed from the pond.
Extreme cases of relocation can be a problem even when it concerns only a single animal. This axolotl was found in a New Forest pond in Southern England by my friend Chris Balcombe; it probably would have felt more at home in a cave in Mexico, but pets that get dumped don’t always have a choice. Axolotls can remain in their larval form and still reproduce successfully. This one was big and healthy, and until it was removed, steadily eating its way through much of the ponds native fauna.

It may be that great crested newts are not endangered to the point of extinction in Britain, but there can be no arguing that along with their ponds and surrounding habitat this species has been in steady decline for decades.

The common response, ‘It is happening everywhere. What can you do?’  won’t solve the problem, and neither will our expansion into every natural space that is available. It isn’t in our longterm best interest, let alone the many other species we are pushing out as we do so. In many cases we are simply following the money, and then building arguments to justify our actions – ultimately another generation will have to face the consequences, because we did not tread lightly and leave things as we found them. 

It is of course ridiculous to think that we can save every newt or salamander from disturbance, but at the very least it makes sense to move beyond the point where we regard protecting other species as a benevolent eccentricity. So, if you uncover something as seemingly insignificant as a newt, or other small creature that you’ve never seen before, then record the time and the place, and always take a photograph to dispel doubt in others. Be proactive –  take a picture and maybe in some small way you might help save the planet, even if only by increasing awareness in others.

All the underwater photographs above were taken in tanks using natural light. Please be aware that permits may we required to keep some amphibians in captivity and this should not be attempted without a full understaning of lifestyles requirements.

Dedicated to eight year old Nolan Gagnon who recently donated his birthday money to ‘The Burns Bog Conservation Foundation’. This 3,000 hectare bog is recognised as the largest raised peat bog remaining on the west coast of North America and one of the last major undeveloped natural habitats in lower mainland B.C.. The bog’s survival is down to the persistence and hard work of local people and needless to say, is busy with salamanders and other amphibians which are the key indicators to the health of life on planet Earth.