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The Great Crested Newt – time to look after a protected species

When you think of native British creatures, you might think of hedgehogs, red squirrels, or even deer. However, the Great Crested Newt – while perhaps not as cute – is vitally important and a protected species.

Numbers of Triturus cristatus have declined massively across Europe over the past century, and they are now protected under British and European law. It is illegal to kill, injure, capture or disturb them, damage or destroy their habitat, or own, sell or trade them. The creatures are protected from the time they are eggs, so knowing where they are and how to protect them is vitally important for planners and landowners to avoid fines.

What Does the Great Crested Newt Look Like?

The great crested newt is also known as the ‘warty newt’, which gives a good clue as to its appearance.

At around 17cm long, it’s the largest newt species in the UK and can be found around ponds with clean, fresh water. They have dark brown or black skin, and a distinctive, bright orange underside. Their mating season runs from March to June, and during this period, males have an impressive crest which runs all the way down their back, plus a white streak in their tail.

Females are generally bulkier than males, and look even bigger when they are full of eggs. Each female can lay around 200 eggs – 4 to 5 a day for a month – with each egg individually wrapped up inside the leaves of pond plants.

During mating season, you may catch the males performing an elaborate underwater dance for the female newts, standing on their front legs and waving their tails in the air. As well as looking good, this tail waving wafts pheromones towards the females.

Why Do Great Crested Newts Need Protection?

The number of great crested newts has plummeted over the last 100 years, mainly due to a drop in the number and quality of ponds because of farming practices and development work, amongst other causes. The newts need clean ponds to breed successfully.

They’re critical to the ecosystems in which they live, taking nutrients from the water and bringing them back to the land, increasing the fertility of the soil. UK lowlands, particularly in England and Wales, are one of the main areas in which the great crested newt still thrives.

While great crested newts are normally spotted in and around ponds, it’s generally assumed they could be anywhere within a 500m radius of the pond, and they spend most of the year in woodland, hedgerows, marshes and grassland where they eat invertebrates. They also hibernate underground and can be found in old walls or around tree roots.

How Do You Know If Great Crested Newts are Present?

There are several ways in which licenced surveyors can check for newts in an area. For planners to be satisfied the correct checks have been carried out properly, surveys must be carried out by someone with a Great Crested Newt Survey Licence, granted by either Natural Resources Wales or Natural England. Surveyors need to prove they have knowledge and experience of dealing with great crested newts before a licence can be given.

The newts are at their most active between mid-March and mid-June, and this is when searches must be carried out. If you miss this window, you’ll have to wait until the following year for the survey to be done. It’s important to plan as far in advance as you can, as four surveys need to be done over this period, with three different survey methods used each time.

  • Egg Searching

Physically searching for newt eggs inside folded leaves. However, once the leaves have been unfolded, the glue which sticks the egg to the leaf is no longer sticky and the egg is left exposed and vulnerable.

  • Torching

This involves slowly walking around the edge of a pond between dusk and midnight, scanning the ground and the bottom of the pond for newts. If it’s raining or too cold, the likelihood of seeing active newts drops considerably.

  • Bottle Trapping

A ‘trap’ is made out of a plastic bottle, which is then placed in the sediment of the pond. The trap is placed in the evening and then removed early in the morning to see if any newts have entered.

This is the riskiest method of assessing the presence of newts, as enough air has to be left in the bottle to stop newts and any other creatures from drowning overnight. This method requires thorough training to be done with the least amount of risk and disturbance.

  • Netting

A net is used around the edge of the pond in an attempt to catch newts or their larvae. This is the least favoured method of assessment as it is less efficient and can disturb the area in which the newts and other wildlife are living.

  • eDNA

Environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys check for the DNA organisms release into the environment through things like shedding skin or faeces. DNA can remain in the water for around 3 weeks and analysing water samples can prove the presence of newts so accurately that the particular species can be identified. Analysing a water sample can either prove the presence of great crested newts or show a high likelihood of their absence, and has the advantage of being quicker, easier and causing less damage to the newts and their environment than other methods.

Each of these methods have their own risks and benefits, and need to be used in conjunction with each other in order to provide a full survey which is acceptable to Natural England. It’s important these surveys are carried out by a licenced surveyor, both to ensure the accuracy of the results and to protect the habitat of this protected species.

What Should You Do If You Find A Great Crested Newt

Whether they’re discovered through a survey or you happen to stumble across them, great crested newts are protected by law and it is illegal to do anything which may harm them or damage their habitat.

If you’re going through a planning or development process, it’s likely you will have already instructed a survey to be done, and your environmental consultant will be able to advise you of changes you can make to your plans to protect the newts.

If there is no alternative but to put the newts at risk either directly or through damaging their habitat, you can apply for a mitigation licence. However, this also requires the expert input of an ecologist to complete the application.

If you have been instructed to carry out a survey for great crested newts or suspect they may be on or near land you’re planning to develop, an environmental expert is critical both in terms of carrying out the surveys needed and providing help and advice to ensure this protected species is treated with care. They can help you plan your surveys so they are carried out within the narrow March-June window and are as accurate and robust as planning authorities require.

If you need advice about great crested newts, surveying for protected species, and protecting or enhancing the biodiversity around your development, get in touch with us on 01225 459564 or email enquiries@engain.com

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