Treating the Great Crested Newt Like the Javan Rhino Devalues Species & Habitat Protection

Why are species under threat – loss of habitat.

How do we protect and restore biodiversity – protecting and restoring biodiversity.

Why do we need species protection at all;

1) to prevent poaching within protected areas; &

2) Because many species roam well beyond protected areas, which in any event are far too small, unprotected areas of habitat are numerically more important.  If they are harmed outside protected areas they may fall below viable breeding populations and place habitat they create and other species at threat.

But species protection in England is getting a bad name, well publicized issues concerning dormice and Great Crested Newts has led George Osborne to take aim at the whole European structure of habitat and species protection – blaming it for harming economic growth.   An attack on species protection is used to threaten habitat protection even though England has less protected areas 9% than any other European Country.  Poorly targeted species protection is making unnecessary political enemies.


The saga began in 2013 when the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, hit on an eye-catching scheme to build a brand new train station in the Derbyshire town of Ilkeston, thought to  be the largest conurbation in England not connected to the rail network….

The difficulties started last summer when work was just about to begin on the £6.5m station. A routine environmental survey revealed that the site was home to a small colony of great-crested newts, an endangered species protected by law. This meant work could not begin until the creatures had been safely trapped and relocated to a new, newt-friendly location.

This was duly done. But, under strict environmental laws, once the newts had been moved, the site had to be monitored to make sure there were no stray newts left behind. Even if one newt were found, the process would have to start from the beginning. And that’s what happened.

Despite clearing the original reptiles, new newts kept on popping up all over the site – perhaps attracted by the newt-free zone.

And worse news was to follow. Having failed to keep the site newt-free for the statutory five-day period, Ilkeston then suffered from an early frost – meaning the newts might have begun hibernating for the winter.

Stony-faced officials had to troop into Mr McLoughlin’s Westminster office to inform him that the whole scheme had to be put on hold for the winter – with monitoring only allowed to begin again this spring, by which time it was quite likely that even more newts would have moved in. The earliest that the station can now open is 2016 – more than a year later than planned. The minister was not best pleased.

Why are we protecting Great Creasted Newts, which appears common?  Surveys have estimated the rates of colony loss in England at between 0.5% and 4% a year during the 1960s to 1990s.  This loss appears to be much greater on the continent than in the UK. It is threatened in 11 countries but England is not one of them.  This is why the Great Crested Newt is important there because it contains a large concentration of breeding population. A  lot of good work has been done on protecting and creating Newt friendly habitat, such as the Tidemills SNCI in Sussex where a breeding population of 1,000s has been created in restored and new ponds. We know how to reverse the decline of the Great Crested Newt.

We know the problem – loss of breeding ponds, and we know what will reverse the decline – new breeding ponds.

So what impact  will losing one, or a tiny handful of newts on the site of Ilkeston station have on this? Answer none at all.  Indeed it was because of this problem of unavoidable residual impact that the much abused concept of biodiversity offsetting was invented.  For the cost of a year of monitoring and delaying opening by a couple of years we could have created dozens of ponds and breed 1000s of newts.  

The Newt is not the Jarvan Rhino, worth throwing everything into protecting every last survivor.  We know what needs to be done, lets find the best and most pragmatic way of doing  it, and avoid being do dogmatic about method that we give fuel to those who would weaken biodiversity protection and nature conservation further.   


One thought on “Treating the Great Crested Newt Like the Javan Rhino Devalues Species & Habitat Protection

  1. If only there was reasonable evidence that biodiversity offsetting worked and that GCN’s weren’t locally common. A number of developments in the York area have been delayed by the presence of GCN’s to the extent that I’ve heard Councillors stating that they’re as common as muck. However ask any local resident if they’ve seen one and I’d be surprised if many had seen one for 40 years.

    The other issue is they don’t like being relocated. There’s something with amphibian biology or behaviour that means they are quite fussy as to where they go or will stay – not unlike badgers.

    We need far more work on offsetting before it’s the planners answer to a problem site because it’s no good if the relocated species are never seen again after the relocation. I’ve looked after a pond for 25 years that had GCN’s relocated there to make way for a development and they’ve never been seen since within miles!

    The Ilkeston problem could have been quite easily prevented by known measures to keep the newts offsite.

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