Species rule change considered

By Claire Marshall
BBC Environment Correspondent

media captionThe great crested newt is a species classified as endangered under European law.

A government consultation on whether to change the rules governing how contractors deal with protected species when developing sites ends this week.

The focus is on the great crested newt, a species classified as endangered under European law.

Natural England, a government body in charge of protecting wildlife, is in the process of putting forward new proposals.

These would make the current licensing system "more flexible and strategic".

It would mean that councils and developers no longer have to move individual great crested newts as long as they protect the biggest colonies and most important habitats.

The consultation will end on 7 April.

If there are ponds on a building site it is illegal to send the bulldozers in until experts have confirmed that there are no great crested newts.

This can be expensive and lead to lengthy delays for major building projects. Great crested newts are protected under the European Habitats Directive so a formal survey by licensed ecologists needs to be carried out.

This can only be done between mid-March and mid-June when great crested newts are in the water breeding.

Winter hibernation

Torches are shone in to the ponds at night to try to spot them and water plants have to be examined by hand for eggs.

If even a small number are found, then Natural England (NE) the government body that looks after wildlife in England must grant a licence to move the animals.

They can only be fenced, trapped and relocated in spring and summer as they hibernate during winter.

This can cost from £5,000 to £10,000 for even a small project. The fencing alone costs £5-£6 per meter and there is labour on top. This costs business tens of millions of pounds a year.

image copyrightScience Photo Library
image captionThe newts can only be relocated in spring and summer as they hibernate during winter

Now Natural England is proposing a new strategy. Its consultation document says, "our proposals shift the focus away from protecting animals on development sites and towards improving populations in the wider local area".

The benchmark will not be individual newts, it will be whatever is necessary to "maintain the conservation status" of the animals.

Great crested newts may not have to be moved if it would not "contribute to the long term prospects of the local population."

Alternative habitats

If a significant colony is found then a developer may build them an alternative habitat somewhere else.

The document acknowledges, "that the proposed policy is likely to increase the mortality of European Protected Species on development sites".

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."

Great crested newt populations have declined sharply and the species is now the most threatened species of newt at a global level in Western Europe.

In the UK they are still widely found although numbers have dropped mainly due to ponds in the countryside being filled in or neglected.

NE is currently undertaking a pilot project in Woking using DNA technology to find the most significant great crested newt colonies.

A simple water sample is taken and sent to a lab and this can show their presence or absence. It is quicker and cheaper than the traditional method. However, if a colony is found then the old ways must still be used to see how many there are.

The project is trying to establish where development on the site will have the least impact, to ensure that new habitats are built to accommodate the colonies.

The NE proposals have had a tentative welcome from conservationists. Stephen Trotter, the Wildlife Trust's Director, said:

"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."

"It is vital that, before the pilot is rolled out to new areas, the Woking trial develops strong scientific evidence and a robust methodology to show that it works for great crested newts and can be repeated elsewhere.

"Great crested newts are a rare species in Europe and it is important that Natural England takes time to get this right."

Saving money?

John Dickson, chairman of the Reptile and Amphibian Group for Somerset said: "I think great crested newts are probably slightly over protected. They are still quite widespread and fairly common in England.

"The reason that they are so highly protected is because it comes from European legislation where they are much more rare."

"It's how this is done. I think it would be a great shame if everything became about saving the developers money."

Sara King, senior consultant with ecological company Ecosulis and a great crested newt licensed surveyor, agrees that the current system is "restrictive."

"I think it as quite a promising development. Our values in our business are centred on benefitting ecology and wildlife. We don't see that putting fencing in and spending on that is going to greatly benefit great crested newts in the long run.

"So we think it is a promising thing to be looking at the great crested newt population as a whole."

However, George Adams, Green Construction Champion for the Construction Industry Council believes that nothing should be done that could compromise any of the European Protected Species.

"The construction industry needs to be more sympathetic to our natural resources. Humanity currently outstrips the Earth by 50% more of its resources than the Earth can replenish, and the construction industry creates 40% of global emissions.

"It is the largest single contributor to humanity's responsibility for global warming. We have no right to cause endangered species to suffer. On Terminal 5 at Heathrow immense care and effort went into protecting the local wildlife."

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