Tuesday, 31 March 2015


If you are a developer, a builder or a quarry company, the last thing you want to find on your site is a great crested newt. Of course every good conservationist carries a few newts around with them, just in case!

The Argus newt survey team with senior ecologist
 Paul Lupton and Graeme King of Aggregate Industries.
You need a licence to handle great crested newts because, like our native bats, they are a protected species. If you want to build houses or dig for gravel you are required to survey the local newt population and come up with ways to work round the newts that are acceptable to Natural England and the planning authority.  You might have to move the population to a new location nearby, or you might need to fence them out of your work site, or you may just need to time your work for when the newts are somewhere else.

Smooth newt

Aggregate Industries, who work the quarry to the north of us, have contracted an Environmental Consultancy called Argus, based in Northumberland, to conduct a fresh survey of the area in order to inform their decisions about the future. We are hoping that sand and gravel extraction might start again quite soon, but there are lots of variables at play.

Today I met with Graeme King of Aggregate Industries and the Argus survey team led by Paul Lupton and was told that we have the newts in at least 8 ponds in the complex here, but there is still work to be done to measure the population properly.

The first sweep is conducted to simply determine if newts are present in each water body (or not) and this is done using a lamp at night and bottle traps. Of course, the survey has to be done at a time of year when the newts are likely to be in the water, which means spring or early summer. However, when they return in mid April the Argus surveyors will use a new technique called EDNA (not named after my auntie).

As you can guess, this technique identifies environmental traces of newt DNA in water samples so that you only have to collect a few bottles of water and send them to a laboratory to find out if newts have been present recently. The results tell you which ponds to study and which ones would be a waste of time. Of course you still have to get good counts from the active ponds in order to get an estimate of the population.

Surveying for newts at night is a great excuse to be out and about among our most secretive wildlife and the team soon found out that we have a thriving population of water shrews as well as dragonflies and great diving beetles, all of which prey on or compete with newts.

Last night we had gale-force winds but the temperature was mild and a lot of toads and newts were on the move, marking the start of the breeding season. They saw very few frogs and only found a few lumps of spawn, which is typical for us.

When the surveyors return I hope they will have better luck with the weather and that they will be serenaded in their nocturnal wanderings by our nightingales, which should arrive in a week or so.