A new hope for endangered newts

A recently restored farmland pond with cursed crowfoot flowering

A recently restored farmland pond with cursed crowfoot flowering - Credit: FWAG East

Lucy Jenkins and Jilly McNaughton are farm advisors for Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) East. Over recent months the duo have been delivering a scheme to provide bigger, better and more joined-up habitat for great crested newts across the county. The scheme is part of a national effort by Natural England to compensate for newt ponds lost to development. Excitingly, it means funding is available for Essex landowners to create or restore wildlife ponds. 

Lucy Jenkins

Lucy Jenkins - Credit: FWAG EAST

Lucy explains: 'Great crested newts are suffering massive declines. Some people find this hard to believe as they are a relatively widespread species and we sometimes hear stories of them delighting people by appearing in their kitchens on damp autumn evenings. However, in other areas where they once thrived, they are now absent. Farmers tell us they used to see them on the farm as a child but sadly no longer find them. You only have to look at the number of clean water ponds lost to development and land use change (around 50 per cent over the past century) to understand that the current rate of loss is unsustainable.
'The new District Level Licensing (DLL) scheme seeks to redress this by making sure compensation ponds are in the ground well ahead of time - before the developer even applies for a license to affect an existing pond. The aim is to ensure there is a 'net gain" of newt habitat at a landscape scale, with the bonus of reduced planning delays.'
Jilly continues: 'Through the traditional mitigation approach, most of the time and money is spent on surveying and relocating the newts on-site, with relatively little invested in the creation of new habitats. The DLL scheme reverses that scenario, focusing instead on providing ample, high quality habitat in areas known to be favourable to newts and with good connectivity to other sites. 
'We help get the ponds in the ground. A brilliant team at Natural England has carried out its biggest ever survey of great crested newts to inform the new scheme. They have come up with an award-winning strategy which identifies areas where new compensation ponds have a high chance of being naturally colonised by great crested newts. Our job is to approach landowners to find suitable ponds to restore and sites to create new ponds within these targeted areas.'
So what makes a good newt pond?
Lucy explains: 'That’s an important question. The main thing is that the pond must have a clean source of water. Chemical run off from roads and agriculture can affect the development of eggs. High nutrient levels mean ponds become choked with blanket weed. The other key factor is light; it must reach the waters’ edge in sufficient quantities to allow aquatic plants to establish around the pond margins where the newts lay their eggs in spring and summer. Having said all that, they can breed in some surprisingly unsuitable places – the newts don’t read the conservation handbooks.'
To date more than 100 ponds have been created or restored under the project in Essex and Cambridgeshire, with Essex a particular good spot for ponds. 

Jilly McNaughton

Jilly McNaughton - Credit: FWAG East

Jilly adds: 'Essex is blessed with clay soils and plenty of historical ponds. There is a good deal of opportunity to create, restore and link newt habitat in these stronghold areas. We need landowners to come forward with potential locations and would urge anyone with an acre or more of land to get in touch.'
'We’re currently checking the ponds we’ve restored and created for the presence of great crested newts by testing pondwater samples for newt DNA,' continues Lucy. 'This is very exciting as it will show how quickly the ponds are colonised and therefore how successful they have been so far. 
'The best thing about my job has to be seeing the ponds one year on, especially with the ones that have been restored. These start out as dark, apparently lifeless, places - overgrown with trees and full of sediment. A year after restoration and they are like little oases in the countryside; surrounded by marginal flowers and teaming with insect and bird life.'
If you are interested in creating or restoring a wildlife pond, please email Lucy Jenkins or Jilly McNaughton at lucy.jenkins@fwageast.org.uk or jilly.mcnaughton@fwageast.org.uk.