Practical techniques: Great crested newts
England, Scotland and Wales
The great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) is one of Britain’s most protected species. Their numbers have declined as a result of habitat loss and pollution, but they remain widely distributed and can be found in a range of wetland habitats. They spend much of the year on land. Land habitat management is therefore as important for this species as wetland habitat management.
Protection and its implications
The great crested newt is listed under Annex II of the Habitats Directive and therefore member states are required to designate Special Areas of Conservation to protect important populations of this species. These sites are protected under the Habitats Directive and associated Regulations.
Even outside designated sites, great crested newts and their habitats are fully protected by the Habitats Regulations and partially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). As a result of their full protection under the Habitats Regulations, mitigation on development sites for great crested newts is governed by a strict licensing procedure administered by the appropriate statutory agency e.g. Natural England. A licence will be required whenever disturbance of great crested newts or damage to their habitat is likely to occur.
The great crested newt is a priority species in England, Wales and Scotland. Government policy is that local planning authorities should consider such species when determining planning applications. Consideration of priority species would also be expected in the UK as part of the legal Biodiversity Duty.
In common with most protected species, the presence of great crested newts can lead to planning permission being refused unless the applicant can clearly demonstrate that the species will be adequately protected during the development process, that disturbance is kept to a minimum, and adequate alternative habitat is provided to sustain at least the existing population. As great crested newts are European protected species, it will also be necessary to demonstrate that the tests in the Habitats Regulations can be met at the planning application stage.
Both the great crested newt’s aquatic habitat (typically medium to large ponds) and terrestrial habitat are protected from damage and destruction. In practice, this can mean that any development affecting suitable habitat within 500m of a great crested newt breeding pond will require mitigation under a European Protected Species licence. An exception might be when the development site is separated from the breeding pond by a physical barrier to great crested newt movements, such as a motorway.
The applicant should be prepared for mitigation involving great crested newts to be lengthy and costly. Obtaining a great crested newt mitigation licence may take around 7 to 10 weeks and involves the preparation of a detailed method statement by a professional ecologist.
Once the licence is issued, much of the mitigation is seasonally constrained or relies on new habitats being ready to receive great crested newts. As a consequence, there may be a wait of several months to a year before trapping can begin in earnest or there may even be a break in trapping over the winter period while newts hibernate. The trapping process itself is lengthy and could last for 1 to 3 months (or more on large development sites), involving daily attendance on site by an ecologist. In England, there has been something of a policy shift away from trapping and removal of individual great crested newts from development site at least partly in response to complaints made by developers. However, the practical application of this policy shift is an emerging picture.
Protecting individual great crested newts
Ideally, key features within the development site which provide habitat for great crested newts should be retained. Such features include ponds (including those not used for breeding), woodland, scrub, coarse grassland and hedgerows. This will not only provide newts with habitat following the development, but should also limit the numbers of great crested newts that need to be captured and may reduce the time taken to remove the newts from the works area. In terrestrial habitats, newts are caught using a system of amphibian-proof fencing and pitfall traps. The fencing is made of plastic sheeting and the pitfall traps are made from buckets that are buried in the ground. The fencing is used to prevent newts entering the development site and to guide great crested newts towards the pitfall traps.
If ponds are to be lost as a result of development, a good way to capture newts is to set up a ring fence around the pond in late autumn. Pitfall traps can then be placed along the fence line and the great crested newts captured as they return to the pond to breed the following spring. This technique may be supplemented by trapping great crested newts from within the pond using bottle traps, or capturing newts when they emerge from the pond after breeding. As not all the population of great crested newts will come to the breeding pond in any one year, pitfall trapping in surrounding terrestrial habitats is also likely to be required up to 500m from the affected pond.
Maintaining great crested newt habitat
Individual great crested newts captured during a trapping programme should either be accommodated within an on-site receptor area (which is the preferred option) or translocated to an off-site receptor area. The latter should be as close as is practical to the development site, be of at least equivalent size and quality as the habitat to be lost, and should be currently free of great crested newts. Unless the impacts on newt habitat are temporary (such as when a new pipeline is installed and then the existing land use reinstated), it is likely that some sort of habitat enhancements or creation will be required to compensate for the losses associated with the development and to accommodate newts captured during site clearance. The type and extent of habitat enhancements or creation will depend on the scale of the impacts. Some examples are:
- Creating new ponds as breeding habitat which are fish-free and have an open, sunny aspect
- Restoring existing ponds to a condition suitable for great crested newts by removing fish, reducing the level of shading by overhanging trees and digging out silt so that the pond stays wet throughout most summers
- Ceasing management and grazing in areas of grassland close to great crested newt breeding ponds and allowing the vegetation to become dense and coarse or creating similar coarse vegetation within the development site
- Planting or restoring hedgerows so that they provide dense ground cover; planting new broadleaved woodland and scrub close to great crested newt breeding ponds which the newts can use for foraging and over-wintering when the vegetation matures
- Creating artificial hibernacula and refugia from a combination of logs, stone and turf.
When carrying out creation and enhancement measures, care should be taken not to damage other habitats of ecological value.
It is likely that some post-development management of newt habitats will be required. This may not amount to much in the first few years other than ensuring the establishment of new planting. However, it is important that ponds are maintained in a condition suitable for great crested newts and that areas of coarse vegetation are not subsequently brought into intensive management.
In all but the most moderate of developments affecting great crested newts, there is likely to be a requirement for post-development monitoring. This may include repeat annual surveys of great crested newts and also surveys of new and enhanced habitat to check that it is developing according to the design.
Timing of works
Newts can be captured in ponds between March and June, and on land between March and October. It is not practicable to capture newts during their winter hibernation which occurs when minimum night time temperatures are below 5oC (usually between November and February).
Bray, R. and Gent, T. (editors) (1997) Opportunities for amphibians and reptiles in the designed landscape. English Nature Science No. 30. English Nature, Peterborough.
English Nature (2001) Great Crested Newt Mitigation Guidelines. English Nature, Peterborough.
Langton, T., Beckett, C. and Foster, J. (2001) Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook. Froglife, Suffolk
Natural England (2015) Great crested newts: surveys and mitigation for development projects. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/great-crested-newts-surveys-and-mitigation-for-development-projects