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Press: The great crested newt has builders running scared.

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Posted by W von Papineäu on January 11, 2003 at 23:40:45:

THE TIMES (London, UK) 11 January 03 Godzilla versus the developers - The great crested newt has builders running scared. (James Owen)
With its waggly walk, spotted orange belly and Mohican crest of spiky skin, the great crested newt is a most improbable creature. And this miniature Godzilla lookalike also has a most improbable power: it can stop a bulldozer in its tracks.
This is because it is an offence to deliberately kill, capture or disturb a great crested newt or damage its environment. A conviction can mean six months in prison.
The unlikely amphibian has important friends, and is protected under the European Commission’s habitats directive, the Bern Convention, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Conservation Regulations 1994, and the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000.
Despite — or perhaps because of — all this attention, the mini-Godzilla is widespread in Britain, particularly England. Conservationists estimate the UK has about 18,000 colonies containing almost half a million individuals. And any of them can halt a bulldozer.
With Britain needing more than four million new homes by 2022, this poses a problem — not least because newts like nothing better than brownfield sites, the very places the builders are encouraged to target.
“They prefer derelict, post-industrial land,” says Jim Foster, a vertebrate ecologist for English Nature. “Rough grass and scrub provide them with cover, and flooded pits are used as breeding pools. Such areas have become more important with the disappearance of their traditional habitat of lowland farm ponds and hedgerows.”
Campaigners opposed to development are taking a keen interest in the amphibians, one of three native newt species. “People are going out looking for them and recording their sites,” Foster says. “Local authorities are also becoming increasingly aware of their protected status. And, of course, the more you look, the more you find.”
Staffordshire is on the frontline in the battle between construction companies and the newt lobby. No sooner is a site earmarked for development than the slippery sitting tenants are discovered.
“Residents are quick to point them out to us,” says the Staffordshire County Council ecologist Roger Hill. “The West Midlands probably has the largest population of great crested newts in Europe, so they crop up frequently in relation to various developments.
“We’re dealing with half a dozen significant cases,” he says. “The Government vastly underestimated the number of sites that would be affected.”
Recent projects to fall foul of the critters include a £2.4 million expansion to Lymedale Business Park in north Staffordshire. The planning application has been withdrawn while a full environmental survey is carried out. This could take until summer to complete.
Planning consent is just the first hurdle. A special licence must be obtained from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If it is granted, an alternative home has to be found and the newts trapped and relocated by wildlife experts. This work is permitted only during the animals’ spring and summer migration between land and water. The whole process can last two years.
It is also expensive. The cost of moving a family of 14 newts to make way for a new school in Greater Manchester was £80,000, or £5,700 for each newt. Some colonies can have more than 1,000 newts.
Local action groups are eager to ally themselves with newts, but this often works only as a delaying tactic. Determined developers still have a good chance of getting the go-ahead. “It has to be a big colony for us to object if the right safeguards are put in place,” Foster says.
This situation has prompted a change of strategy by the Bicester Action Group, which is fighting plans for a asylum-seeker reception centre in Oxfordshire. The group had championed the cause of a newt colony discovered at the site. But when the Government agreed to provide special facilities for the amphibians, including a new pond, the action group turned on the animals, claiming that their needs were being put before those of residents. A spokeswoman said: “The welfare of newts appears to be all important, but when will the Government get its priorities in order and look at the welfare of the local community and asylum seekers?”
And newts are likely to get even better protection. Elliot Morley, the nature conservation minister, recently announced plans to have the requirements of the EC habitats directive included in the local authority planning process. The move follows a warning from Brussels that Britain is failing to safeguard endangered European species. The commission said that Defra licences that allowed protected species to be disturbed were being handed out too freely.
Under the Government’s plan, responsibility for licences would fall to local authorities, which are already struggling under the growing newt-generated workload.
Newts aren’t the only animals to consider. The directive also covers dormice, otters, natterjack toads, sand lizards, smooth snakes and bats. It’s a list that nimbys everywhere are busy memorising.
Newt in my back yard ...
Cases involving newts and other protected species
On April 1 last year, the London Electricity Group released a statement headed “This is not an April Fool Joke”. Engineers repairing an electricity substation serving Stansted Airport had to down tools when a great crested newt was spotted. Work was halted for two weeks while they waited on permission to continue.
A housing developer was fined £7,600 last July for destroying hundreds of newts in Filey, North Yorkshire. The man was arrested after bulldozing the site of a former Butlins holiday camp that included a newt-filled swimming pool. He had been refused a licence by Defra.
Conservationists recently won a battle to prevent 1,350 new homes being built at Holton Heath, near Wareham in Dorset. Species threatened included the sand lizard and the smooth snake, both listed under the EC habitats directive. Plans for a multi-million-pound bypass were also thrown out.
Bats may force a planned £30 million relief road in south Dorset to be scrapped. English Nature objected to the project after the discovery of four bat roosts. Councillors are considering an alternative route.
Dormice have scuppered plans for an academy for future Welsh rugby stars. Wales Rugby Union’s application was rejected by councillors in December because of concerns for the rodent’s welfare. Proposals for the site in Bridgend also included a housing estate, hotel and business park.

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