By James Arkell @jamesarkell11
I meet my colleague Neil in a small lay-by somewhere in the East Midlands. It’s early evening and the grey clouds overhead are looking more and more ominous as the minutes roll by. After a small amount of jostling, our small company hatchbacks are huddled together, a bastion of warmth and comfort against the inevitable rain. After a quick and jovial conversation, we begin an equipment check, cuing the repeated opening of car doors and hunting for paperwork.
A thorough search quickly finds the necessary documents. The site maps, survey sheets and risk assessments were hidden away in a small backpack. The backpack itself is located amongst the many stacks of empty plastic bottles and green poles, which currently reside in old, yet sturdy, re-usable bags. As we prepare to start work an hour before dusk, these items form the basis of what we will be doing, a survey for a UK protected species. Great Crested Newts (GCN) or ‘Cresties’, are found across Europe and are the largest of Britain’s newt species. Throughout much of the 20th Century, their populations have declined due to habitat loss. In the case of GCN, freshwater ponds are used for egg-laying between April and September, with the remainder of their time spent hibernating in mud or under woodland detritus, such as old logs.
As agriculture intensified, and the infilling of ponds became a more widespread practice, it is easy to see how newt populations are severely threatened. This decline was recognised, leading to the granting of protection under the UK’s Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, the EU Habitats Directive and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). Since this was done, population numbers have begun to recover. Yet despite this, newts hold something of a bad name within UK development. They are often viewed as an impediment and unnecessary extra cost, compounding already limited development budgets. This has reportedly been the case with Ed Sheeran’s recent attempt to build a private Chapel.
I begin to cover myself in the high fashion of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Hard Hat (with company logo), check. Hi-vis jacket (apparently manufactured to always feel one size too large), check. Wellies with steel toe-cap (essential for our work), check. Neil has left to find the site land owner to finalise our permission to survey. I throw the remaining things we need in to a bag, just as Neil returns “Ok the land owners happy, let’s get moving”.
The site we are working at is typical of one favoured by newts. It is a disused Quarry; adorned with spoil heaps, industrial litter and a surprising array of flora. It is, for the most part, undisturbed and unmanaged land. This does pose some issue for us however, as the British weather has not been kind and the track we must follow is saturated. As we climb the track, our wellies seem to collect half a field’s worth of mud, making our climb twice as hard. Even in the relative cold, we are both starting to sweat. PPE is not very breathable.
We arrive at the top of a large spoil heap, flattened by heavy machinery. Here we find several clusters of ponds, which in the fading light appear black and bottomless, yet are probably only a few inches deep. GCN can be fussy: the ponds are large (but not too large) and have the right balance of vegetation cover around them (some, but not too much). With a thump we drop the bags of empty bottles and poles. Small drops of rain begin to fall and I look at Neil. I sigh and half-jokingly say that if it rains I’ll cry. He has a resigned look on his face. The rain worsens, and eventually turns into a flood. We work quickly to assemble and place the newt ‘traps’; made using the empty bottles and poles. We also conduct Habitat Suitability Index (HSI) assessments while struggling to keep survey sheets dry in our weatherproof clipboards. As the evening draws in however, we finish and begin the walk back to the lay-by and the promise of a warm hotel.
We return to the quarry the following morning. The mist that surrounds us now makes the site feel completely new. This site was good for GCN, we found several of them, black with an orange under-belly, silver tails and large crests on the males. As I hold them in my hand they seem to be contemplating me in their uniquely baffled way. This moment reminds me why it can be worth the mud, sweat and tears to save these and other creatures. We finish the survey and return to the cars, tired and damp and with a full report to write. We will split the work between us as we each must go our separate ways. There are of course always more surveys to be done.