Great Crested Newts Habitat – ecology – mitigation & the law


Newts and development

Great crested newts (Triturus cristatus) are widespread in the UK, found throughout England and Wales and also in southern Scotland. However, they have declined dramatically in numbers and their distribution is patchy. They are abundant in some small areas but nationally the species is threatened. The decline is due to loss of habitat, especially the infilling of ponds. They need both aquatic and terrestrial habitat, favouring areas of lowland that contain medium sized ponds, rough grassland, scrub and woodland. They are fully protected by law.

Identification of great crested newt

The great crested newt is the largest newt found in the UK, growing up to 17 cm in length. The skin of adult crested newts is granular in appearance, a dark brown background colour with darker spots. Adult males have a striking jagged crest along the length of their body and a smoother crest along the tail. Breeding males also have a white-blue stripe along the tail. Females lack a crest and tail stripe but have a yellow-orange stripe running along the bottom edge of the tail. Both sexes have a vivid orange belly with an irregular unique pattern of dark blotches.

Ecology and habitat of the great crested newt

Great crested newts rely on waterbodies for breeding but otherwise they spend much of their lives on land. They over winter on land, normally hibernating underground and emerge soon after the first frost-free days in January or February to begin the migration to breeding ponds. Movement on land occurs almost exclusively at night and their progress is dependent on factors such as evening temperatures and rainfall, favouring wet or damp conditions with temperatures above 5 oC.

Great crested newts require quite specific pond conditions for breeding. Ponds ideally need to have neutral to alkaline water (pH 6 or above) with areas of open water and well vegetated margins. Breeding ponds tend to be nutrient rich, not too shaded, free of fish with not too many waterfowl present. Males use open water to perform a complicated courtship dance. Females then lay the fertilised eggs individually on the leaves of submerged plants. Larvae hatch about April time onwards and stay in the pond to feed and complete metamorphosis from aquatic larvae to land-adapted juveniles. Adults usually leave the ponds before juveniles but the emergence is normally quite staggered and can last several months.
When on land, great crested newts forage for prey among rank grassland, scrub and woodland, sometimes returning to ponds to feed during the summer. They require suitable refuges to use in extreme weather and during daytimes, such as large pieces of rotting deadwood, rubble piles or disused mammal burrows.

Current status of the great crested newt

Although quite widespread in Britain, great crested newts have suffered a substantial decline in recent years due to the loss of suitable breeding ponds. Many ponds have disappeared due to water table reduction, infilling for development, farming, waste disposal, neglect or fish stocking. Great crested newts actually spend most of their time on land and the management of the habitat that surrounds ponds is crucial to their survival. Unfortunately, along with the loss of ponds, pollution and toxic affects of chemicals used in intensive farming and the degradation, loss and fragmentation of terrestrial habitats have all contributed to the dramatic decline of great crested newts.

Legislation for the great crested newt

Great crested newts are fully protected under UK and European legislation:

  • Bern Convention 1979: Appendix III
  • Wildlife & Countryside Act (as Amended) 1981: Schedule 5
  • EC Habitats Directive 1992: Annex II and IV
  • Conservation (Natural Habitats etc.) Regulations 1994: Schedule 2
  • Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW 2000)

Because great crested newts are listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, Section 9(1) of the Act makes it an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take great crested newts. Section 9(2) makes it an offence to possess or control a live or dead great crested newt or any part or thing derived from them. Section 9(4) makes it an offence to intentionally damage, destroy, obstruct access to, any structure or place which great crested newts use for shelter or protection.

It is also an offence to intentionally disturb them while occupying a structure or place which it uses for that purpose. Section 9(5) makes it an offence to sell, offer or expose for sale, or possess or transport for the purpose of sale, any live or dead great crested newt or any part or thing derived from them. It is also an offence to publish or cause to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that great crested newts, or parts or derived things of them are bought, sold or are intended to be. Section 9 applies to all stages in their life cycle.

Their inclusion on Schedule 2 of the Conservation Regulations 1994 affords great crested newts extra protection by also making it an offence under Regulation 39(1) to deliberately capture, kill or disturb great crested newts or to deliberately take or destroy their eggs, or damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place. Regulation 39(2) makes it an offence to keep, or transport, or exchange great crested newts or any part or thing derived from them. Paragraphs 39(1) and 39(2) apply to all stages of their life cycle.

This level of legal protection allows areas to be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and/or Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for the presence of great crested newts. These designations bring legal restrictions to the management and operations that can occur in such sites, to help conserve the great crested newt and the specific habitats it requires.

The maximum fine on conviction of offences is currently £5,000. The CRoW Act amended the 1981 Act to allow for a custodial sentence of up to six months instead of, or in addition to, a fine. Fines may be imposed in relation to each offence committed, so operations involving many animals or repeated offences can potentially accrue large fines.

In addition, items or equipment, which may constitute evidence of the commission of an offence, may be seized and detained. The CRoW Act also amends the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to render Section 9 offences ‘arrestable’, giving the police significant additional powers.

If in doubt over any legal issue relating to great crested newts contact the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO) for advice.

This is only a brief interpretation of the law concerning great crested newts – reference should always be made to the original texts of the legislation if more detailed interpretation is needed (UK & European Legislation).

What to do if you have great crested newts on your land. Advice for landowners – how you can help

If you are lucky enough to have great crested newts on your land you should contact your local Biological Records Centre or Amphibian and Reptile Group. This will add valuable detail to the known distribution of great crested newts, helping to focus conservation efforts.

It is possible to help the conservation of great crested newts by acting locally and enhancing the habitat conditions on your land to increase their population and general biodiversity. The creation or restoration of ponds is essential for newts but the sympathetic management of surrounding terrestrial habitat is also necessary as newts spend much of their time on land. There are many sources of funding, including grants, available to help with such projects.

What to do if a great crested newt site is threatened by a development

Ideally, it is best if great crested newts and their habitats are protected before planning permission has been given for development of a site. If a known or suspected great crested newt site is threatened by a development, the local planning authority and the local office of the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO) should be informed as far in advance as possible. These organisations will ensure that appropriate surveys are licensed to establish the status of newts on the site and that alternatives to the proposed development are considered as part of the planning process.

For activities that do not require planning permission it is best to contact the landowner before any work is due to start. The local SNCO or Wildlife Trust might be able to assist and provide advice to the landowner regarding conservation of their population of great crested newts.

If there is evidence that the law has been broken or is about to be, the police should be informed, the best contact being a Police Wildlife Liaison Officer. For offences or potential offences such as pond draining/infilling or fish stocking it is worth also contacting the local office of the Environment Agency. Natural England can help to clarify the law around great crested newts. You can find your regional office of Natural England through their website.

What to do if great crested newts are discovered during a development

If you are developing a site and great crested newts are discovered after development has commenced, all works should be halted until great crested newt surveys have been undertaken and appropriate measures taken to protect the newts on site. Remember that if great crested newts are present, it would be an offence to proceed works without an appropriate license. We can organise a survey and undertake mitigation works for you such as newt fencing – please contact us.

For the development to proceed, special protection and compensation must be provided for the newts and their environment. This is termed mitigation, and specialist licensed ecological consultants such as JPR Environmental provide its strategies. Mitigation normally takes the form of improving adjacent habitat by creating or restoring ponds and their surrounding land, see below for more details.

If you are a private individual and are worried about great crested newts on a development site, please contact your regional Natural England office (you will find contact details on their website) or, if there is one, contact the ecologist at your local council.

Mitigation for great crested newts

Experienced ecological consultants must provide mitigation strategies, as specific requirements need to be met if Local Planning Authorities are to grant permission for a development. Mitigation projects for great crested newts may require licences from DEFRA or Natural England and these are normally arranged by ecological consultants. JPR Environmental offer a complete service for design, implementation and management of great crested newt mitigation projects.

Typical mitigation measures for great crested newts include exclusion fences and pond creation or restoration.

In cases where planning permission has been granted to sites that contain newts, they may have to be excluded from certain areas. This can be done by fencing around a pond or larger terrestrial area that is known to contain the newts.

Ring-fencing contains the newts during the development to protect them from machinery and other operations. This method is only appropriate if the site will remain suitable for the newts once development is complete. If the site is not to be suitable then the newts will need to be translocated to another suitable site. This also employs ring-fencing but should only be considered as a last resort as translocations are not always successful and the methods are costly in both time and money.

Appropriate management of ponds and the surrounding habitats are crucial for the success of great crested newts. In most cases populations of great crested newts benefit from the creation of more breeding and feeding ponds. These do not need to be particularly large, and therefore several can often be incorporated or created close to a development site.