The Ventilator

Incorporating The Ranger's Blog

Notes from a Wildlife Garden

Licence to… handle newts

By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener “You’re a naturist (sic), do you know anything about great crested newts?” a rather inebriated man asked The Wildlife Gardener at a party last week. For the purposes of this story, let’s call him Mr Pinotage. I know a bit about newts, and in the case of the great crested, no newts is good news. Not because they’re not utterly delightful, special creatures, rather because of the miles of red tape they trail along behind them.

Great crested newts

I asked him what he wanted to know. He regaled me with the following story: Recently, builders at a farm near him were demolishing a stone wall and several little black hibernating amphibians fell out of it. Neighbours’ children eagerly gathered up the cute little critters, put them in jam jars and no doubt tried to dress them up as Polly Pocket. Eager to show off their new pets, they presented them to Mr Pinotage. He had the presence of mind to recognise them as protected great crested newts and offer to take them in before they were mauled to death. Having built a garden pond the previous year, he thought it would be a great idea to put the newts in it, but before he did that he phoned a friend who works in nature conservation. Mr Pinotage nearly fell off his chair at what his phone-a-friend told him: What you are doing is highly illegal. The great crested newt is an internationally important species, listed in:

  • Annexes II and IV of the EC Habitats Directive;
  • Appendix II of the Bern Convention;
  • Schedule 2 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc) Regulations 1994 (Regulation 8);
  • Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

You cannot disturb, capture, trade, possess, transport, injure or kill great crested newts. Their habitat also receives legal protection from disturbance. Don’t put them in your pond. Any management works proposed to a great crested newt pond needs to be licensed by either Natural England or DEFRA. They could introduce disease to the existing amphibian population (see my previous article). Also, the environment is probably not suitable for them and they will die. So what to do? In trying to save some highly protected creatures from builders’ boots and the ministrations of small children, Mr Pinotage had inadvertently placed himself in a legal minefield, or rather through a minefield as everything that happened in this sorry tale was unlawful. Various official bodies had pointed to Natural England and DEFRA getting involved which, within the law, would be correct, but would the red tape take so long to unroll that the unfortunate creatures would simply be killed with kindness waiting in their jam jars? I could only suggest a local Wildlife Trust or animal sanctuary. I wonder what he decided to do. Perhaps he will let me know. The conversation raised questions for the Wildlife Garden. As you know, we have a well-loved wildlife pond. Luckily, the newts in it are common ones so I don’t need a licence to manage it. Yes, rare animals need to be protected, but does the draconian stringency of the law relating to great crested newts in practical terms do them more harm than good? If they are discovered during building work, the project has to be stopped while a person licensed to handle them is found and the newts can only be surveyed for between March and May when they emerge to breed. The newspapers are full of stories of building projects being halted because of the discovery of great crested newts:

A survey found a single, great crested newt on a site at Headcorn, in Kent, but Natural England insisted we’d looked at the wrong time of year. We were told to survey again and were forced to spend

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4 thoughts on “Licence to… handle newts

  • I’ll try taking a middle ground between the two opposing views of turning a blind eye and the developers moving!

    The developers, or someone even higher up who proposed the development, should take into account the possibility of a rare habitat being there. If building work is near foliage or marsh it’s only common sense to get a bit of advice first to see what could potentially be involved. This’ll reduce costs and time in the long-run.

  • Bob Newington

    Why should the newts be relocated? Why not the developer?

  • David Larkin

    I have been working with our ecologist to come up with a solution for developers who need to relocate protected slow worms. As you say all suitable sites probably already have slow worms. We have therefore proposed that developers pay for habitat management to restore what was a suitable site back to suitableness and then relocate their slow worms onto it. Of course if they didn’t relocate their slow worms the locals would colonise it anyway. It is also not possible to tie a developer into continued management so that the site remains suitable, about 10 years is the best you can hope for but at least the habitat restoration should benefit many other species in that time, and once the site is no longer suitable for the relocated slow worms and they have died out another developer can pay to restore it and restock it again! Hardly an ideal solution but at least there is some benefit.
    David Larkin

  • The Virtual Ranger

    It has often struck me how disproportionate is the protection given to individual animals (less so plants) as opposed to their habitats.

    The problem in the case of a rare or declining species is rarely a shortage of the individual creatures. It’s almost always a shortage of habitats. This is why reintroductions and captive breeding programmes – often the first suggestion of amateur wildlife enthusiasts – are actually best kept as the very last resort, if used at all. Take GC newts. Quite widespread in Britain (but not in Europe) they are nonetheless slowly declining. The reason? Loss of habitat.

    It’s the same for just about everything else – habitat loss means species decline. Yet much of our legislation requires the protection of the individual whilst allowing the habitat to be removed legally. As an added insult, ecologists are supposed to find somewhere to ‘relocate’ the individuals concerned. In many cases an expensive and ultimately pointless business. They usually manage, but frankly it’s a bit of a sham exercise if all the suitable habitat is already occupied. Amateur ‘relocation’ exercises are fraught with difficulties and can’t really ever be encouraged. One can only look at our predecessors for examples – the well-meaning relocation of the grey squirrel to the UK mainland is one example that springs to mind.

    Similarly with the protection afforded to nesting birds. That particular bit of law is intended to enforce the humane treatment of birds, not conservation, although it is often presented as the latter. It has little if any conservation benefit to avoid touching an active nest, if as soon as the fledglings are flown you can fell the tree.


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