New DNA testing could speed up environmental surveys

A new test devised by Natural England can detect the DNA of great crested newts in local ponds and streams.

The test, which is being piloted in Woking, Surrey, means that developers and councils may soon be able to resolve clashes over dealing with the legally protected animals, without the current lengthy surveys to find and count them.

Mullucks Wells Residential Director William Wells said, “For years, great crested newts have been the scourge of the building industry. Their presence has been able to stop a development in its tracks, adding tens of thousands of pounds in costs to the project concerned.

“This new test should speed up the whole process, and allow councils to balance the important protection of valuable wildlife habitats with the equally important requirement to provide desperately needed new homes. The savings in time, administration and money should be transformational.”

The great crested newt is protected under EU law which means that licensed ecologists have had to carry out four time-consuming surveys to establish their presence in any given area. If discovered, developers are currently obliged to apply for a licence to disturb them, before painstakingly re-homing them one by one.

The new plans from Natural England, which advises on protecting the species, mean that developers will no longer be required to move individual newts, as long as councils protect the biggest populations and best habitats.

William Wells added, “This new technology means that sites where great crested newts are most prevalent will be quickly identified, so development can be guided away from these places towards more suitable locations.

“Under the present system, the costs involved can be eye-watering. In one case in Milton Keynes, a building firm claimed to have had to spend more than £1 million catching 150 of the creatures – delaying the construction of 6,500 new homes by up to a year. That’s a cost of £6,700 per newt!

“So if the current plans go ahead, developers will no longer have to down tools, simply because they unexpectedly come across a single newt during the course of their work. It will bring back a better balance between protecting the natural environment, and providing houses for people who so desperately need them.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Leonora (Ellie) Enking

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