Great crested newts have got themselves more than their fair share of attention over the years, and sadly accrued more than their fair share of haters. I, however, am a self-confessed newt fan. To me they’re a species of magic and mythology, associated with witchcraft, and featured in some beloved childhood literature (Matilda and Harry Potter being the best examples). They’re also mysterious: many people have never seen them or don’t know what they are (they're commonly confused with lizards or juvenile frogs). They’re active at night, so are surveyed in their ponds using torches – walking around ponds at night, looking out for flashes of movement in the pond brings a unique feeling to looking for them. They look intriguing: part alien, part magical creature, dreamt up by someone with a vivid imagination. Despite all this, for many people great crested newts are associated primarily with lengthy development procedures and planning permission hurdles. Now cresties are receiving even more limelight than usual due to a change in the way their conservation is being managed in the UK. Will this be their chance to change their reputation?
Back in 1992, great crested newts were made a European Protected Species through their listing on Annex IV of the EU’s Habitats Directive. This afforded them strict protection, in addition to the protection given to all amphibians under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Since the implementation of this legislation in the UK via the 1994 Habitats Regulations, it has been an offence to capture, possess, disturb, kill, injure, or trade in individuals, or to damage or destroy the places they use for breeding or resting. This protection was primarily due to their rarity in Europe, although they are comparatively widespread in the UK. Though an island of nature lovers, Britain is not an international wildlife stronghold for many species as we’re so densely populated and so much of our land is farmed. Arguably, it is worth doing our bit to protect one of the few rare species for which we hold a globally significant population.
The most widespread consequence of the GCN’s protection is in the development and planning sectors. Development on breeding ponds can be prohibited, or mitigation required, including obligations to protect or create ponds and translocate newts. Surveying for cresties can lead to unwanted delays: they are only found in their breeding ponds for a portion of the year and surveys should be undertaken by a licensed individual. This has characterised GCNs as an unpopular species with those wishing to develop land and has led to critical headlines bemoaning the costs expended on small populations.
Great crested newts photographed by Amy Schwartz
In the original scheme, a lot of money and time went into the supposed conservation of cresties through prohibition and mitigation, but the effectiveness of this was questionable and GCNs have continued to decline. A lot of the replacement sites or fenced off ponds are left in predominantly urban areas, isolated from other populations and habitat. High quality terrestrial surroundings are essential for newts outside of the breeding season and for enabling spread of individuals between ponds.
A new approach is now underway to shift the focus away from protecting animals on development sites. This aims to make use of a strategic approach, undertaken at a landscape level, to create high quality habitats for newts in optimal areas. In return for permitting development to go ahead, developers must fund the high quality compensatory mitigation elsewhere, all overseen at a landscape level. This should lead to connected metapopulations, which will be more resilient to change. The approach reflects wider changes in conservation. The scheme for GCNs is the first case of the government employing the strategic approach set out in Biodiveristy2020, produced by DEFRA which forms the Biodiversity Strategy for England.
Despite support from some conservation bodies, it has not been plain sailing. Some think that sacrificing existing wildlife habitats for development is not acceptable or raised concerns about how the new scheme would ensure positive outcomes for newts.
It’ll be several years before it can be said whether it has been a success, determined by the quality of the mitigation habitats, the number of developers who buy into the scheme, the impact on existing populations, and ultimately the population size of GCNs. It can be argued that something needed to change – despite the money and time going into protect them, GCNs continue to decline in the UK, a travesty for one of our most protected species, for which we have a good understanding of its ecological needs. This new approach is designed to be better for the newts, and better for development, and firmly rooted in modern conservation principles. Perhaps this is the start of the comeback era of the newts…
Emily Seccombe likes looking for newts, is interested in how we place value on nature, and wants to maximise her positive environmental impact through her career. She has worked in nature conservation since graduating from the University of Oxford.