What is a great crested newt survey?

A great crested newt.

As great crested newts are a protected species, a survey is needed to establish whether or not they are living near any proposed development site. A developer must comply with legislation that protects great crested newts and adopt an appropriate mitigation strategy if the species is found on or near the site in question; as a last resort, compensation measures must be put in place for any harm to them as a result of the scheme.

To find out whether you need a great crested newt survey, an ecological company can assess your development site and your plans for it. If a survey is advised, ecologists will examine the site for suitable habitat for great crested newts, likely breeding areas, and a population estimate.

There are three species of newt in the UK, including the great crested newt (triturus cristatus), the palmate newt (lissotriton helveticus) and the smooth newt (lissotriton vulgaris). While all native newt species are given a level of protection, the rapid decline in great crested newt numbers and their range has afforded them particular attention – they have a breeding population of under 400,000, making them the rarest of British newts.

Why are newt surveys required?

Great crested newts are listed as a rare and most threatened species under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006), and this must be taken into account in planning decisions. Great crested newts are also protected under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. As they have full protection, it’s an offence to:

  • Deliberately kill, injure, disturb or capture them.
  • Deliberately take or destroy their eggs.
  • Damage or destroy their breeding sites and resting places.
  • Possess, control or transport them (dead or alive).
  • It is also an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to intentionally or recklessly disturb great crested newts while they occupy a sheltering place or obstruct access to a shelter or protection place.

When is a great crested newt survey required?

Whenever it’s considered likely that great crested newts are present in the area of a prospective development. The initial assessment will accompany a planning application and will investigate potentially suitable habitats such as freshwater ponds or aquatic habitats up to 500m from the development site, along with other terrestrial habitats such as woodland, hedgerows and grassland. A survey may not be needed if the probability of great crested newts in the area is unlikely, or the planned scheme would not impact on any such population. Individual local planning authorities will be able to provide further information.

About newt surveys

An initial assessment by ecologists will confirm or rule out the presence of newts, and a decision can be made about further surveys. A phase 2 survey will provide more information about the newt species present.

The smooth newt and the palmate newt are not extensively protected and will not trigger further surveys. However, if great crested newts are found, further investigation work will be needed before local planning authorities will be satisfied enough to grant a planning application.

Scoping Newt Survey/Habitat Suitability Index (HSI)

This is the initial survey that focuses on habitat quality rather than the physical presence of newts. They can be carried out during daylight hours at any time of year. If the development site is within 500m of aquatic habitats, technically the site includes refuges for great crested newts. The habit suitability will range from poor to moderate and excellent. If the rating is poor or below, it suggests that possible harm to newts will be acceptably low and no further surveys will be needed. However, the classification of a high quality site will trigger a need for a phase 2 survey.

Phase 2/ Population/Trapping Survey

Also called a newt population survey, this population size class estimate or newt trapping survey has strict seasonal restrictions. Usually required for sites with high quality habitats, the phase 2 survey involves several visits to the site, conducted at dawn and dusk, between the months of mid-March and mid-June.

Standard methodology

Traditional survey techniques used to detect newts include lamping with high powered torches, pitfall traps, bottle trapping, and the relatively new method of environmental DNA surveys (eDNA), which involve analysing water samples from ponds or other water bodies on the site to detect newt DNA. An eDNA survey can detect the presence of newts from their skin secretions in the breeding season. A single survey is usually sufficient to collect water samples and send them off for laboratory analysis. If DNA is identified, a full survey comprising six visits by experienced ecologists may be needed to calculate the population size.

Following the investigations a mitigation strategy will be formulated for the local planning authority, acting as a method statement containing all the details needed for them to grant approval to your scheme. It’s important to get the timing of the survey right to ensure you don’t have to wait till the next year’s survey season. When all the information has been gathered, you may need to obtain a European Protected Species Licence (EPSL) from Natural England or Natural Resources Wales.

For a local planning authority to accept the results of great crested newt surveys for a planning application, and for Natural England to accept the results for a great crested newt mitigation licence, surveys must take place during the newts’ breeding season, from early spring: mid-March to June. Environmental DNA surveys can take place from mid-April to June.

A male great crested newt.

The Great Crested Newt District Licensing (DLL) Scheme

This is a mitigation licensing scheme that may be granted at the local planning authority level or at a wider scale in England; in areas covered by a DLL, developers can choose to make a financial contribution to the scheme instead of carrying out their own great crested newt survey or applying for a separate licence.

Now offered by many local planning authorities, DLL schemes allow developers to make a conservation payment to cover the cost of restoring or creating ponds or suitable habitat in areas away from the development site. In some situations, eDNA surveys may be needed to establish the presence or absence of great crested newts.

A DLL scheme involves:

  • A map indicating key great crested newt areas.
  • An assessment of development; at either local authority area or wider coverage.
  • A conservation strategy to consider the effects of development and improve the local great crested newt conservation status.
  • Habitat improvement areas.
  • A strategy for compensatory habitat provision, i.e., replacement of habitat lost to development.
  • A developer contributions scheme to fund the strategy.

Options for developers:

If a developer decides to opt for DLL to satisfy their great crested newt obligations, they must sign an agreement with Natural England or another DLL operator, which enables them to include their proposal in the scheme, subject to planning consent being granted.

If a developer chooses not to be involved in a DLL scheme, they must provide a newt survey if:

  • There is a possibility that great crested newts are present on the proposed site according to distribution records.
  • The proposed site has water features such as ponds or ditches within 500m (for smaller developments, 250m may be accepted).
  • The site includes shelters such as grassland, scrub, log piles or hedgerows within 500m of suitable water habitat.
  • A developer choosing not to use a DLL, and where the application is likely to affect great crested newts, must apply for a Great Crested Newt Mitigation Licence.
Water bodies provide potential newt habitat.

Great crested newt survey requirements:

  • Only licensed ecologists who hold a Natural England Great Crested Newt Licence can conduct the survey.
  • The presence or absence survey can involve eDNA sampling.
  • A population size survey.
  • A terrestrial habitat and aquatic habitat survey.

For sites that are not in a DLL scheme, developers should:

Submit information with their planning application about how their scheme avoids or mitigates the impact on great crested newts. If the scheme is likely to have an impact, an assessment will be made of population numbers, the site in relation to other populations, and its importance to local and national newt populations. A site’s proximity to features such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest may also be considered.

Ponds

If a great crested newt breeding pond will be destroyed by development, the developer should compensate by:

  1. Replacing the breeding pond with at least two new ponds on the site of the same size.
  2. Ensuring that these ponds are suitable before the old pond is destroyed, which may take a full growing season.
  3. Replacing or safeguarding other ponds which are potentially used by newts within 500m.

Site management

Local planning authorities will consider the following management requirements for suitable habitat sites not in a DLL scheme (these may be required by protected species licences).

  • Management of aquatic vegetation in ponds.
  • Clearance of tree or shrub cover around ponds.
  • Leaf fall management; de-silting and clearance.
  • Grazing or mowing of grassland.
  • Management of woodland and scrub.

The maintenance plan

This should consider the habitat, including ponds, after development as well as monitoring newts. It should also cover works to habitats to check that mitigation measures are working and ensure that remedial works are carried out if needed. The plan should also assess the effects of introducing fish into ponds, leakage from ponds, rubbish dumping, fires or other damage, for instance to fences, along with tunnel silting or blockages.

How to start a great crested newt survey

The first step is to contact a suitably qualified ecological consultancy like Arbtech. They can provide advice about what is required by your proposed works and when the survey needs to be done. Getting in touch with an ecological company early on is recommended so that you reduce the chances of delaying your project. Walkover Surveys cost from £399, depending on the size of the proposed development and the individual scheme. Phase 2 survey prices start from £1,699.

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