Last month (July 2020) the UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the following words:
“Time is money. And the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country.”
…What’s that all about? What are newt-counting delays, and how are newts linked with societal productivity and prosperity? This post aims to answer these questions, whilst also highlighting the importance of these little guys in the UK.
The Great Crested Newt is a species of amphibian found all over Britain (Griffiths, 2004). It is one of the best studied amphibians in England, and is also one of the best protected, as it is illegal to disturb, capture, harm or kill them under UK and EU law (Habitats Directive) (Griffiths, 2004; Biggs et al., 2015). The species is important as it plays several beneficial roles to the ecosystem it inhabits. For example, newts are involved in nutrient cycling as their duel habitat of both pond and land allows breakdown and transfer of nutrients, improving soil quality (Black, 2017). They also eat midges, which can transmit diseases to cattle and affect livestock production (Black, 2017). Great Crested newts have experienced a serious decline in numbers over the last 60 years, as the number of ponds in the UK has halved since the start of the 20th Century (Natural England, 2020). And because they are a species of principle importance under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that they are protected.
Though they might not have the charismatic appeal of a koala or a polar bear (if they did, perhaps Boris wouldn’t have blamed them for pulling down the economy), they are still unique and interesting – for example, male newts grow their crests in spring and “dance*” to waft chemicals to females during mating (The Wildlife Trusts, 2017).
*Having watched a video of said dance, I can confirm that it is not the Hugh-Grant-dancing-in-Love-Actually sort of dance I had expected, but more of a rhythmic wobble.
Perhaps it is this uniqueness and rarity that makes the newts worth conserving. But not everyone agrees with this opinion. In fact, many people, like Boris Johnson, see newt conservation as a development-halting hassle and a threat to economic growth. This is because when a development is proposed, an ecological assessment of the site must be conducted, to ensure that the damage that is being done to the affected habitats can be reduced and/or mitigated. If newts are found at the proposed site, development plans must then change, to account for mitigation and restoration of their habitat. Development and conservation can clash, and because it is easy to blame an external, uncontrollable influence on the failure of a project, newts get a bad reputation. And it is true that in some cases newts have caused temporary delays to projects, most notably to the chapel which singer Ed Sheeran wished to build on his private estate (Dowling, 2018). But is it right that newts should be known as “tiny dragons that hate prosperity”? (Dowling, 2018).
Research has found that instead of ecological surveying being the main cause for slowed development, market forces are to blame, and that the protection of the species afforded by the Habitats Directive leads to delays in relatively few developments (Foster, 2020). As well as this, ecological surveying practices of newts is improving – earlier this year, the government launched a “District Level Licensing” scheme which works at a landscape rather than site-scale to identify areas where development should be avoided, and where new habitats can be created (Natural England, 2020). The point of this is to highlight hotspots for newts prior to development starting, so that holdups can be avoided altogether, rather than dealt with further down the line. The growing use of environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify newts, where water samples are taken and the DNA of newts is identified from them, also speeds up surveying whilst still being a highly reliable way to detect presence (Biggs et al., 2015).
The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan aims to “embed an environmental net gain principle for development” (HM Government, 2018). If this is to be achieved, environmental protection shouldn’t be a “drag on productivity” – instead, if considered as an essential part of planning rather than red tape preventing building, the challenge of creating a habitat for one of Britain’s only native amphibians could instead be an opportunity for innovation.
Biggs, J., Ewald, N., Valentini, A., Gaboriaud, C., Dejean, T., Griffiths, R.A., Foster, J., Wilkinson, J.W., Arnell, A., Brotherton, P. & Williams, P. (2015) Using eDNA to develop a national citizen science-based monitoring programme for the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus). Biological Conservation, 183, pp.19-28
Black (2017) In defence of Great Crested Newts: why these elusive amphibians are worth the worry. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/in-defence-of-great-crested-newts-why-these-elusive-amphibians-are-worth-the-worry-77288 (Accessed: 08/08/2020)
Dowling, T. (2018) We found newts right were we are: Ed Sheeran vs the amphibians. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/shortcuts/2018/mar/20/ed-sheeran-newts-wedding-chapel-garden-marry (Accessed: 08/08/2020)
Foster, J. (2020) Newts and Project Speed. [online] Available at: https://www.wcl.org.uk/newts-and-project-speed.asp (Accessed: 08/08/20)
Griffiths, R.A. (2004) Great Crested Newts (Triturus cristatus) in Europe. Species conservation and management. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.281-291
HM Government (2018) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. [pdf] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf (Accessed: 08/08/20)
Natural England (2020) Innovative Scheme to conserve newts and promote sustainable development is rolled out across England. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/innovative-scheme-to-conserve-newts-and-promote-sustainable-development-is-rolled-out-across-england (Accessed: 08/08/20)
Wildlife Trusts (2017) The greatness of great crested newts. [online] Available at: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/blog/greatness-great-crested-newts (Accessed: 08/08/20)