Freshwater Habitats Trust is part of a consortium of organisations testing a new approach to great crested newt conservation known as ‘district licensing’. Here we introduce the project and provide links to further information about the project on the Natural England website.
At present Britain’s laws aim to protect every pond where great crested newts are found, as well as every individual animal and the dry land habitats where the newts live outside the breeding season. Where newts are found in places targeted for building houses and roads this can lead to substantial delays for construction work while surveys are carried out and newts removed from areas that will be built on. This is often very expensive and often fails to protect the newts in the long term. Ponds may be left behind in little pockets of green space in otherwise urbanised areas, becoming polluted by runoff from roads and buildings, and squeezed into unsuitable landscaped surroundings which provided poor quality habitat. Alternatively, newts may be moved to new locations which, even when purposely designed, have often turned out to be unsuitable for them in the longer term, simply postponing for a few years their inevitable demise.
The new approach will focus on making sure that newt populations are healthy across the countryside as a whole by providing enough high quality, clean water ponds, with natural meadows and woodland, to ensure that the newts can breed and thrive. The construction and management of ponds and their surroundings will follow the principles developed and tested in the Million Ponds Project and described in The Pond Book and the Amphibian Habitat Management Handbook. With growing numbers, newts should be able to easily spread from place to place – essential for healthy thriving populations – through a network of high quality habitat. In the new approach, rather than trying to protect every existing pond where the animals are found, however poor quality or small the population, the aim is to ensure that the countryside is once again full of clean, unpolluted, ponds with more good quality terrestrial habitat so the animals can once again become common and abundant.
Trials of this approach are being undertaken in several parts of England, and Freshwater Habitats Trust is part of a consortium, organised by the Environment Bank, working in the south Midlands in an area running from Oxfordshire in the west to Bedford in the east. The consortium also includes Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, one of the UK’s main amphibian conservation organisations, NatureMetrics, a specialist eDNA company, and Associated British Foods, which works with farmers and the food industry. Our trial complements work being undertaken by Natural England themselves in Kent, Cheshire and Shropshire, and a third pilot being undertaken by Warwickshire County Council.
The first stage of this work was to assess the factors affecting the distribution of great crested newts across the project area using environmental DNA survey methods to quickly assess whether newts are present or absent from a large representative sample of sites. Samples were collected in May and June 2017 from sites chosen at random in the project area.
The data collected has been used to make a computer model of newt distribution across the south Midlands to underpin the new newt conservation strategy. On completion of the project the newt records will be added to Freshwater Habitats Trust wildlife database, which is open to public access, as part of the project’s overall strategy to be open and publicly accountable.
Subsequent stages of the project during 2017 included:
(i) creating a spatial plan that demonstrates an overall net gain in the conservation status of great crested newts (a ‘newt future status’ map), and one that allows determination of a proportionate contribution to that net gain through the licensing of development (‘a guide for developers’ map)
(ii) developing a monitoring/ surveillance programme that provides sustainable long-term monitoring and transparent reporting of newt status in the pilot area
(iii) a costed programme of good quality habitat creation and good quality habitat management to achieve the net gain in conservation status.