When you go for walks in the countryside around Ramsbury you’re sure to find the River Kennet sooner or later and at first sight you think it is just a stream or hole full of rather muddy water. Perhaps the stretch of the Kennett is large enough for a boat or clear enough to swim or paddle in, you may not find it very interesting unless there are ducks swimming on it or birds bathing in it. But if you really knew what a lot of strange little creatures live in it, hiding on chalky bottom, or in the untidy, tangled water weeds, you would discover that it is really quite exciting.
You have probably seen frogs and baby tadpoles times in ponds and gardens. There are always pleanty to be seen in Spring at the Ramsbury Nature Reserve (just off the High Street, next to the Fire Station). This is a short story about a little creature rather like them, called a newt.
A newt is about five or six inches long, and in the winter it is difficult to find him, because he comes on land, and finds snug little crack in a bank or tree where he can hide and go to sleep till the warm weather comes.
But in the spring he wakes up, and makes his way to the nearest pond. He looks very much like a lizard, with a rough skin, and big eyes in his narrow head, but his legs are smaller, and his long tail is rather fatter. He uses his tiny, claw- like feet to climb up and down the plants and reeds in the water.
After he has been living in the pond for a week or two, his tail gets quite broad and flat, and helps him to swim. He grows a funny little crest down his back, and the dull colour of his underside changes to pale yellow or orange. The mother newt is not nearly so pretty-looking, but she also broadens her tail, and uses it like an oar to steer by.
She lays her eggs one at a time, hiding them carefully in folded leaves. Each one is a white speck, no bigger than a pin’s head, covered in a little lump of jelly which keeps it safely sticking to the leaf.
The little tadpole grows inside the egg, and at the end of three or four weeks he pushes his way out and swims about. He is rather different from the frog tadpole, as he has very big eyes, and some little feathery things called gills which help him to breathe. He feeds on very small water insects, and soon gets big enough to grow legs, first two front ones, then two hind ones. Next his gills shrivel up, and he begins to come out of the water and breathe air, just as we do. By the end of July he leaves the pond and lives on land, though he does not lose his tail as the frog does; it just shrinks a little.
If a newt has an accident to one of his legs, he just sets to work and grows a new one. Sometimes when he does this, the old leg gets better, and then he has five!
In the water a grown-up newt eats other tadpoles, but when he lives on land, before his winter sleep, he likes small worms, and, if you have very sharp eyes and are out at night, you may see him hunting for them.