Last night I was a budding script writer for the Beeb, my niche: agri-soap and period drama. A deadline was approaching so I hastened to my PC….In deepest Corsetshire, local wheeler-dealer Matt Cadbury has just bought himself the old quarry near Bakey Hill. Its full of trees and reeds and stuff, it’s a waste of good land, it is, he grumbled. A few weeks later after the locals were scarred witless by rumours that a toxic waste dump might be opening on their doorsteps, and local councillors had a splendid lunch in The Cow Inn. Matt got consent to build in the old quarry, providing all the necessary checks were completed.
‘I hate these hippy types, but this outfit seem switched on, their brochures got lots of nice pictures of Otters and fings on it, and they have lots of letters after their names, look!’
So Wildstuff r’ us were duly appointed to check out the place. Matt’s face fell when they told him about the newts and badgers, and orchids, and bats, and glow worms, and peregrines, and reptiles, and 17 Red data Book, and 52 Nationally Scarce plants and creepie-crawlies, but don’t worry they said it had a long standing mineral consent so we’ll just have to move the things out of the way.
‘The real problem is the newts! You need a licence’, they said.
‘Then get one!’ said Matt. Then I can sell it on to Bodgitt and Scarper Inc, they have offered £12 million, once all is hunky dory’.
A few weeks pass, and Matt rings up to ask about his licence. They have refused said Dr.Duffer of Wildstuff. They were happy about the 36 Great Crested Newts we found, but worried about the other 100 little black jobs that the surveyor saw but couldn’t identify. They have agreed to grant us a conservation licence so we can make some ponds ready to put the newts in once we start moving them. A year passes and EN came for a visit, but were very unhappy to see a clay lined hole full of water.
‘What’s this’, they said?
‘A pond,’ replied, Dr.Duffer.
No its not it’s a hole full of water, where are newts supposed to hide and lay eggs etc. etc. Go and get some weed and make it suitable.
Finally Wildstuff got the heave-ho, and GreenPants smoothed things out and got Matt his licence to move the newts out of the pit! What a bonus said Dr.Heron, although Wildstuff’s people only saw 36, they have said we can move up to 600!!
Trees are felled, fences and buckets put in place and the GreenPants dreamteam of ‘highly-trained’ ecologists start the big move. Gasps and whistles penetrate the morning air, as bucket after bucket is chock full of newts! Something is very wrong! ‘We’ve got 64 already, weren’t there only supposed to be 36’. A week later 600 have been moved, an anxious ecologist rings up DEFRA, to see what can be done, and to explain that this place is heaving with newts. A friendly South African lady says not to worry she can amend the licence,‘would 2000 be enough?’
‘Yes siree, cough ..cough… I mean that’s fine’, says the relieved ecologist.
A fortnight passes and the 2000 mark is rapidly approaching. Well I suppose we better explain to the nice people at DEFRA that this place should be a SSSI, never mind an housing estate. Result, no one at DEFRA bats an eyelid, except to amend licence again to 5000.
23,000 Smooth Newts, 450 toads and 390 frogs later and the bulldozers move in.
Then I woke up with a start!
Whats the matter? says the Missus,
‘Oh nothing dear, No one will believe it, they’ll think I dreamt the whole thing up!’
Driving to work, I reflected on the lunacy that is licencing and the disparity between the endless hoops placed in front of the wouldbe licence applicant;-,
Thou shall molest newts endlessly even when the first visit tells you all you need to know (ie. Its heaving with them!).
Thou cannot assume the worst and present a lavish package of mitigation to get the ball rolling!
Thou shall churn the whole place up , risk drowning, mugging, and frostbite, to satisfy some jobsworth that’s the ponds got a medium population, only to get this bunked up, in two 2 minute phone calls to allow you to move 3 times the figure needed to have the place protected under European law. Even when you point out to them that the Planning Permission was granted on the basis of completely bogus survey results, nothing gets done!
Then you remember ecology is not a ‘precise’ science, and a 536 fold underestimate of a population can happen, indeed one might argue that had the survey been carried out in a different drier year none would have been found as there was nowhere to trap, or torch, and over 6000 GCN would have been bulldozed into oblivion.
It is very easy to get hold of a surveying licence, even if you have very little experience of actually surveying for newts. This leads to the misuse of bottle traps with dire consequences to newts.
The powers that be, insist on multiple trapping efforts being undertaken to ascertain the size of the population. This is needed to guide DEFRA as to the level of mitigation required after any works are undertaken. On the face of it, this is a sensible approach, however all too often the risk to newts in carrying out such survey far outways the potential risk to animals through the works programme.
For instance trapping in May and June could easily kill 10s of newts. If the guidelines had been adhered to at one site on the Isle of Wight, over 50 newts could have been killed. The pitfalling and destructive search which this data supported found one adult GCN, a toad and a slow worm. The fields which the pipelines crossed were grazed and used for hay/silage production. How many newts were killed by the normal farming operations??
The simple first step is to add a proviso that if any one census event (be it torch count or trap night) yields, say, over 50 newts in a pond, no further trapping should be needed or allowed. Areas like the Cheshire plain are home to other much rarer beasts such as Hydrochara caraboides, who’s egg cocoons are killed by being submerged, yet NE sanction dozens of GCN surveys that will result in this happening. I still wait to see a trap that is safe for Water Shrews.
Newt numbers invariably decline after May anyway, so the peak count based on may and June sampling is likely to be an underestimate..
A colleague of mine torched a site on the Welsh border and obtained a count of over 100 adults, despite this, a second consultancy decided to continue and trap the site resulting in the deaths of dozens of GCN. Some traps contained 7-10 adults, which had quickly exhausted any air reservoir left. Indeed in many of the traps none had been left, as despite claiming to have been trained the surveyors were undertaking their first trapping effort and had not put an air bubble and were shocked and upset when they realised their mistakes. Even if they had put in a very large air reserve how could they stop too many newts entering the traps!!