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Dragon Finder

River Nene

Trainee Blog

My name is Michelle Branson and I’m Froglife’s River Nene Dragon Finder Trainee. I have started this blog as part of my traineeship and will be using it to share my adventures and experiences throughout the year. Links to my previous blog posts can be found at the bottom of this page!


Here be Dragons…


On dark nights in spring, deep in the heart of Cambridgeshire, an army is on the move. We venture out into the cold atop noble steeds, heavily armed and prepared.  Our destination: the dark quiet places where beasts lurk in the shadows.


We are dragon hunters.


Ok so the noble steed may be a Ford Fiesta, and the weapons heavy-duty survey torches – but the creatures we’re hunting ARE suitably mythical (if on a very tiny scale). They are great crested newts – the UK’s most highly protected amphibian.



Despite having been around for 40 million years, great crested newts are currently in decline throughout Europe. Their populations have become fragmented due to an increase in human land use and consequent decrease in suitable habitat. It is because of this that we are out ‘dragon hunting’ or, in less dramatic terms, amphibian surveying.


It is an important part of Froglife’s work to monitor amphibian and reptile populations throughout the UK and great crested newts are no exception. Our research has contributed to national and international science and alerted us to the plight of many struggling species (most recently the common toad!).  Being armed with this knowledge leaves us better prepared to protect these declining animals and the habitats they depend on.



There are several ways to survey for amphibians, including bottle trapping, egg searching and even testing water samples for newt DNA. However, torchlight surveys are the most commonly used. Special high-powered torches are used to get a glimpse into the nightlife of the pond (when amphibians are at their most active). Number, species and sex are recorded in selected areas each year, enabling us to keep an eye on population levels and trends.


These surveys are a fantastic opportunity to get a closer look at a range of aquatic creatures but especially our most elusive newt. A veritable giant by newt proportions (growing up to a mighty 15cm in length), great crested newts boast a long wavy crest, stripy toes and warty skin. They make up for their lack of fire breathing with a flame coloured underside, covered in a pattern of spots as unique to each newt as our fingerprints are to us. And their lack of wings is more than made up for by the impressive feathery gills protruding from the heads of youngsters, also known as efts.



So despite being a real creature, there is something truly magical about great crested newts. I’m sure anyone who’s seen one can tell you; they’re a fascinating species to watch.  If you get the chance, come along to one of Froglife’s events or survey training evenings and see for yourself. Even if you’re not lucky enough to spot a miniature dragon, a nighttime pond holds many more wonders, yet to be discovered!




Previous Blogs!