While the phrase ‘native British creatures’ often conjures up images of cute hedgehogs, beautiful red squirrels or regal deer, their warty-looking friend, the Great Crested Newt, needs our attention just as much.
These newts were found all over Europe, but their numbers have plummeted over the past 100 years, so much so that they have been designated as European protected species under UK and European Law. This makes it illegal to kill, injure, capture or disturb them, damage their habitat, or own, sell or trade them. The newts are protected from the time they are eggs, and as the eggs are normally wrapped in pond leaves, it’s vital to know what to look for and if they’re on or around your land.
If you are developing land that has a pond or ditch within 500m of it, or if you require planning consent, it is wise to check if you have these protected animals in or near your proposals. You will need to have a survey conducted by a qualified ecological consultant who will assess the conditions for newts and advise you on avoidance or mitigation.
Recognising the Great Crested Newt
Aside from its dark, wart-like skin, the Great Crested Newt also has a bright orange underbelly and, during the mating season of March to June, the males have a crest which runs the full length of their body plus a white streak on their tail.
Great Crested Newts are normally found around ponds with clean, fresh water and are most active during their mating season. They’re the largest newt species in the UK, measuring around 17cm long, and females are normally bulkier than males.
During the mating season, you may see male newts ‘dancing’ underwater, standing on their front legs and waving their tails around to attract the females. The females then spend around a month laying 200 eggs, wrapping each individually in the leaves of pond plants.
Why are Great Crested Newts So Important?
Great Crested Newts need clean pond water to breed successfully, and the increase in pollution from farming, development work and other sources has severely impacted them over the last century. They’re now mainly found in the lowlands of England and Wales.
They play a key role in increasing the fertility of the soil around the ponds they use, taking nutrients from the water and bringing them back to the land, making them an important part of their ecosystems. While they’re easiest to spot when they’re around ponds, Great Crested Newts spend most of their lives on land, in woodland, hedgerows, grassland and marshes, and it should be assumed that they can be anywhere within a 500-metre radius of the pond they’re spotted in.
They’re also fond of hiding in old walls or knotty tree roots, where they can find the invertebrates they eat.
Checking for Great Crested Newts
Checking for the newts needs to be done by a surveyor with a Great Crested Newt Survey Licence. The licences are granted by Natural England or Natural Resources Wales, and ensure that planners will be satisfied with the checks that take place. In order to gain a licence, surveyors need to prove their knowledge and experience in dealing with this vulnerable species.
Searches are carried out between mid-March and mid-June, when the mating season is in full swing, and need to be done four times over this period. If you leave it too late, you’ll have to wait until March of the following year.
Surveyors also have to use a combination of at least three of the following survey methods to prove the likelihood of Great Crested Newts:
- Egg Searching
As the name suggests, physically searching for newt eggs inside folded leaves. This poses a risk to the newts, as once the egg has been exposed, the glue-like substance on it will not stick again and the egg is left uncovered and vulnerable.
This is physically checking the area for newts by torchlight at dawn or dusk. This method is weather dependent, as the newts are not as active in cold, wet weather.
- Bottle Trapping
Surveyors place a trap in the sediment of the pond in the evening, and then check for newts the following morning. This is especially risky, as enough air has to be left in the trap to stop newts and any other creatures from drowning overnight, and it causes disturbance in the area where the trap is placed.
A net is used around the edge of the pond to try to catch newts or their larvae. This is the least popular method of assessment as it disturbs the habitat and is not an efficient way of measuring the wildlife.
The quickest and easiest way to survey is using environmental DNA (eDNA). Any creatures in the water leave traces of DNA through skin particles or faeces. The newt DNA can remain in the water for around 3 weeks, so a water sample can prove that newts have been in the pond recently. It’s so accurate, the sample can be used to prove exactly what species is present or prove a high likelihood of the newts’ absence. It is also the least intrusive method of surveying.
It’s critical that these surveys are carried out by licensed surveyors both to ensure that the authorities are satisfied with the results and to reduce the risk of damage to the newt population and their habitat. The surveyor will also be able to assess the best survey methods for the area.
What Happens If Great Crested Newts Are Present?
Great Crested Newts are protected by law, so you must not do anything to hurt them or cause damage to their habitat.
Getting an environmental expert involved in the earliest stages of planning is wise – they will be able to carry out the surveys you need, and make sure the right number and type of searches are carried out during the limited time of year when newts can be monitored. Your environmental expert can also advise you as to what measures you can take to remove or reduce the risk of harm to the ecosystem as a whole, and the newts in particular.
If harm is absolutely unavoidable, you can apply for a mitigation licence which also needs input from an ecologist in order to be processed.
Whatever surveys you need, and whatever the outcome and necessary next steps, working with an environmental expert will make the process quicker and easier, and make sure that any evidence you gather is robust enough to satisfy planning authorities.
For more advice about Great Crested Newts, surveying for protected species, and the potential implications for your particular development, get in touch with Engain on 01225 459564 or email email@example.com