Press release

Pilot project aims to help great crested newts

An innovative new approach to protecting great crested newts could enhance their population and reduce delays to major building projects.

Great crested newt
Great crested newt © Jim Foster

Natural England is launching a pilot project that will bring more flexibility to the licensing system for great crested newts, while providing more of the weedy ponds which they favour.

The aim is to take a more strategic approach to the conservation of newts, ensuring that resources are focused on newt populations and habitat that will bring the greatest benefits to the species. At the same time it will make the licensing process much more straightforward for developers on sites where newts are present.

Species protected after significant decline

Great crested newts declined significantly in the previous century, resulting in them becoming protected under European and UK law. As a European Protected Species it is illegal to capture, kill, injure or disturb them without a licence from Natural England.

Under the current system, developers on sites with great crested newts are required to carry out a survey and assessment before applying to Natural England for a licence to move the animals before building work can begin. This process is costly and time-consuming and, because it is restricted to the active season of great crested newts, presents a real risk of delay for development.

DNA testing for newts in ponds

The ground-breaking approach, to be trialled by Natural England and Woking Borough Council in Surrey, will involve survey work to establish the size, location and connectivity of great crested newt populations. For this purpose, testing for traces of newt DNA in pond water has already been undertaken across Woking to establish where these amphibians live. This is a new survey technique, which will both improve knowledge of the species and save time and money on survey costs.

The survey information will be used to produce a local conservation plan for the newts, which will retain, enhance and link up the most significant populations of newts, identify areas where development will have the least impact and specify where new habitat will be created to ensure a healthy overall population.

The council will put in place the new habitat, so that when development results in habitat loss, the habitat gains will already be in place to compensate. Where there are sites of high conservation value for great crested newts it is likely that developers will seek to avoid those areas. This system will not only improve the habitat legacy for great crested newt, it will radically reduce delays and cost to developers of survey and setting up their own schemes to protect newts.

Ground-breaking approach to licensing

Andrew Sells, Chairman of Natural England, said:

This innovative pilot in Woking is an exciting opportunity that I hope will bring significant benefits for conservation.

The current licensing system for European Protected Species in England is quite a rigid way of protecting great crested newts, placing the emphasis on individual newts, rather than the species as a whole. By making the system more flexible and strategic, it will enable us to establish habitat for great crested newts, where their populations will most benefit from being in a wide network of habitat, rather than being squeezed in around development.

Alongside creating strongholds for great crested newt, this ground-breaking approach will streamline the delivery of much-needed development and lift constraints on the layout and design of development land.

Alan Law, Natural England’s Chief Strategy and Reform Officer, said:

The great crested newt is one of our most striking aquatic creatures but has suffered from loss of habitat. England supports a number of significant breeding populations but our knowledge of their size and distribution is patchy. I hope this pilot will yield important information and provide a great deal of new habitat, both of which will help to improve the fortunes of this species.

The pilot project is due to be launched in the autumn. Natural England will be consulting national and local partners from across conservation organisations and the development industry as it evaluates the pilot.

Better habitat for newts

Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, said:

The protection and recovery of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions. There is strong evidence to show that the health and wellbeing of the local people - and wildlife - who live in new housing estates is far better if high-quality green wild spaces are designed into schemes from the outset – not to mention the higher financial value of their properties in the long term. The Wildlife Trusts work with thousands of developments every year to find positive solutions which integrate the needs of people and wildlife with the needs of developers.

In principle, we all want a cost-effective and workable planning system that focuses on win-win outcomes. If this pilot can find practical and transparent ways of providing better, more joined-up habitat, supporting more great crested newts - whilst also providing a more common-sense process - then that’s very good news. It is vital that, before the pilot is rolled out to new areas, the Woking trial develops strong scientific evidence and a robust methodology to show that it works for great crested newts and can be repeated elsewhere. Great crested newts are a rare species in Europe and it is important that Natural England takes time to get this right. All those with an interest in great crested newts should be genuinely involved in co-designing and evaluating the new approach. The Wildlife Trusts are potential partners in helping to find sound win-win practical solutions and we will be submitting some ideas for how the pilot might be designed and run to answer our questions and give everyone confidence in the new approach.

Ray Morgan, Chief Executive of Woking Borough Council, said:

We are delighted to be part of such an important, science-led pilot. Development is essential for the borough’s future prosperity but we must ensure it is carried out in harmony with our environment – we hope this pilot will help point the way to achieving that.

Published 27 August 2015