Pilot scheme could improve Great Crested Newt habitat and speed up development

A groundbreaking approach to protecting one of England's most threatened amphibians could enhance their population and provide more of the weedy ponds they favour - while also streamlining major development projects.

Male great crested newt. Image: Jim Foster/Natural England
Male great crested newt. Image: Jim Foster/Natural England

Under the current system it is illegal for developers to capture, kill, injure or disturb the amphibians without a license from Natural England. Developers of sites where newts are present must carry out a survey and assessment before applying for a licence to move the animals - all before work can start. This process can only happen during the newts' active season, often causing delays.

But Natural England is trialling a new approach with Woking Borough Council in Surrey. It will see survey work to establish the size, location and connectivity of great crested newt populations. A new survey technique that tests for traces of newt DNA in pond water will establish where newt populations are, saving time and money.

That information will be used to produce a local conservation plan will be produced which will retain, enhance and link up the most significant newt populations. The best spots for newt-friendly development and for habitat creation will also be identified.

The council will create the new habitats to compensate in advance for new developments. Developers are expected to avoid sites that are found to be of high conservation value.

Andrew Sells, chairman of Natural England, said: "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."

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.

Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts' director for 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."

He said it would be "very good news" if the pilot programme could provide strong scientific evidence that it provides better habitat for great crested newts and makes development more practical.

"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."

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