Natural England releases the results from the most comprehensive investigation into the population status and distribution of great crested newts in Britain.
The one year study commissioned by Natural England and carried out by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, sheds new light on the status of great crested newts, but conservationists are concerned by some of the results.
Great crested newts have declined dramatically in the last 40 years and although still widespread across lowland England they are now uncommon. Despite protection under UK and European wildlife law, numbers are still declining overall, and deterioration of habitat remains their biggest threat.
Great Crested Newt © Mark Hows, from the surfbirds galleries.
Conservation of the species has previously been difficult due to patchy and inconsistent data. The latest research provides the most comprehensive picture of where newts can be found, but shows that many of the ponds that newts call home are in fact of poor quality and unlikely to sustain them, or other species, in the coming years. The results from the study, which used innovative computer modelling techniques and the Habitat Suitability Index will help better protect the newts and focus future conservation efforts.
Andrew Wood, Natural England’s Director for Science and Evidence said: “This survey shows that although great crested newts remain quite widespread, they are still in decline and their long-term future remains uncertain. The comprehensive picture this survey provides will be essential for informing future efforts to help conserve this charismatic, but vulnerable native species.”
Dr. John Wilkinson of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said: “We very much hope that this report will lead to better, bigger, more and joined up conservation approaches for UK great crested newts – this will deliver real benefits for the species and its habitat.”
Historical research has shown that a century ago there were around one million ponds in our countryside. That has shrunk to around 478,000 ponds now – a decline that has been compounded by poor water quality and too much shade. With only a quarter of the ponds occupied by newts in good condition, the progressive loss of suitable habitat is a cause for real concern. Initiatives such as the Million Ponds Project, led by Pond Conservation and supported by Natural England, aim to put high quality ponds back in the countryside.
Dr Jeremy Biggs from Pond Conservation said: “Great crested newts rely on networks of good quality ponds for their survival. The Million Ponds Project is currently creating thousands of new clean-water ponds across the UK to help not only great crested newts, but also many other pond dwellers, such as dragonflies, water bugs and our rarest water plants. All of these groups are declining because of poor water quality, so improving the quality and quantity of ponds across the UK landscape needs to become a key national conservation priority.”
Case study: how farmers and landowners are helping newts
There is encouraging work going on to help great crested newts on our farmland. Natural England has been supporting land owners to look after newts and improve habitat condition through its Higher Level Stewardship scheme which can provide funds for surveys, pond restoration, in-field options and green corridors for the newts. A good example is in South and mid Norfolk and north east Suffolk.
The Dews Farm Special Project in Bramfield began in 2008 with funding from Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship scheme. The project involved three neighbouring land owners who have created and restored ponds over a wide area. Five ponds were created initially and a further ten ponds were restored. More ponds have been restored in the last two years, with a focus on sites less than 1000 metres from Dews Farm. Surveys have already revealed that newts and other wildlife are using these ponds as “stepping stones” to move around the countryside. This will help newts to develop healthier and larger populations in the area.
Kim Pearce, Natural England’s project advisor has been working with farmers across the area and added; “The enthusiasm and commitment of local farmers have been essential to the success of this project. Thanks to the importance they have attached to developing pond habitats, numbers of newts are already showing signs of recovery.”