Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No 3: Newts.
'Newt'. Funny little word. It sounds properly ancient, doesn't it? If you travelled back through the ages saying the word 'newt' to people, you imagine that it would be many hundreds of years before you got to a point in history where nobody understood what you were talking about. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Aubrey, all would have used the same word that we do now. You could probably have had quite the conversation with them. 'Newt?' 'Ah! Newt!' And so on.
Yet the newt is not quite as ancient as I thought. I learn today that the term was originally 'ewt', and it was one of those word cases known as false splitting. 'An ewt' became 'a newt'. Orange is a better known example. 'Narangi' in Sanskrit, still 'naranja' in Spanish, it became 'norange' in English. Easy to see how a norange would then develop into an orange.
But back to newts. The current Mayor of London is famously fond of them, and I have to say that I am too. Wonderful little gadgets. Palmate, Crested, the Common or Smooth, I've kept them all - or at least kept them as long as the old tin bath in our garden could contain them. They usually made a bid for freedom after a day or two, and took their chances. And sometimes, a day or two after that, you'd find a newt-shaped splatter out on the front path or beside one of the dustbins, all dried up in the sun. And then you'd have to put on your wellie boots and go to the pond and catch some more. Such is the unthinking cruelty of boys.
Once natural features of the landscape, ponds were essential watering holes for sheep and cattle before the advent of water troughs, but they had a far more important role as ready made adventure playgrounds for us children. You could chuck things in them, fish stuff out of them, go skating on them in winter, even drown in them if you weren't paying attention. And of course they were the most wonderful pet shops. Frogs, sticklebacks, whole flotillas of water-boatmen - you just went down to the pond and helped yourself. And if you got fed up with the amphibious, then exploration of the immediate surroundings would often turn up some other class of pet for your entertainment - a slow-worm, maybe, or one of those little black lizards, or a baby rook. It was an unfortunate creature that decided to take up residence in or around a pond. Destined for a long and peaceful life it wasn't.
I liked newts best, though. They were so pretty and so very easy to catch. Plus they didn't hop about like frogs were apt to, and so they might stay in their tin bath and submit to being 'looked after' a little longer than a frog would. Consequently their survival rate was much lower. If the cat didn't get them then a diet of Sunblest and Kennomeat probably would.
But despite my best efforts I don't really suppose that I'm responsible for the demise of the newt. By the time I left Somerset all the ponds in our area had gone. I can remember there being a good half dozen within easy walking distance of where we lived, but eventually they were all filled in, built on, or simply reclaimed as valuable land. So it's the pond that has actually become extinct, and from there a whole microcosm of nature has disappeared - including the common newt and the very common little boy.
I blame the farmers of course. Well, it's only fair. They blamed me often enough, as I recall.