SLIMEY, warty and only 10cm long, they can stop multi-million-pound housing developments in their tracks with a swish of their tail.
Great crested newts are an icon of Great Britain’s ponds and among the many creatures of the freshwater deep which fascinate an Oxford conservation charity.
The Freshwater Habitats Trust last year celebrated 25 years of standing up for Britain’s ponds.
The group, which employs 12 at its Oxford Brookes University HQ, has been transforming our perceptions of pond life for 26 years.
Now it has made a discovery that it hopes will play a major role in protecting the humble great crested newt.
Until now, conservationists have used plastic bottles to catch the slippery pond dwellers for four nights in a row. But the trust has devised a laboratory test that can detect if newts are present through DNA traces in pond water.
This could cause more headaches for developers who already face a raft of tests from the impact on historic buildings, overseen by English Heritage, to flood risks set by The Environment Agency.
Director and co-founder Jeremy Biggs said: “The sky is potentially the limit.
“We could certainly use this test to identify other amphibians, fish and even plants. It will definitely have an affect on planning battles.”
The trust was asked to develop the new technique by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
The demands of wildlife have been known to throw a spanner in the works of building developments.
Last year ecologist Dominic Woodfield had planning permission for 500 homes near Bicester’s Gavray Drive overturned at the High Court.
He argued Cherwell District Council had ignored the butterflies, lizards, snakes, slow worms, great crested newts and wild flowers, in breach of regulations.
Dr Biggs said the trust’s new newt test reflects a growing interest in pond life which has been driven by the organisation since 1988.
Newt testing is just one of a growing number of national and international schemes the trust is working on to boost the profile of freshwater denizens.
It has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to start a nationwide project to preserve the cleanest-water ponds in the country.
It has been given £64,000 to develop the plans and the trust hopes this will see it get a total of £965,000 for more work.
The trust spends at least £150,000 each year and survives on donations from trust funds and grants from bodies like DEFRA and the Environment Agency.
It just completed a project digging a new set of ponds at a nature reserve in the heart of Oxford.
Come the spring, the new, spring-fed ponds at Lye Valley will provide a home for amphibians, insects and water dwelling mammals in a rare, limestone habitat.
They are next to The Lye Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), home to 22 species that are rare to Oxfordshire, including parnassus grass and striking marsh orchids.
Ecologist Dr Judy Webb, a member of the Friends of Lye Valley group who asked for the trust’s help, said: “We needed open ponds for certain species and for children to enjoy, but we didn’t have the money to get the big diggers in.
“Freshwater Habitats Trust were fantastically useful, they knew where to go for the funding and exactly how much to spend.
“We anticipate that rare insects such as water beetles and soldier-flies from the adjacent Lye Valley calcareous fen will colonise the newly cleared ponds.
“There’s an excellent chance they will – a tremendous gain for Oxford since these small creatures have been driven to extinction in most other parts of the county.”
Mark Lygo, Oxford City Council board member for open spaces, said: “It is great to be involved in this partnership with the Friends of Lye Valley and Freshwater Habitats Trust for the benefit of this wonderful site.”
Dr Biggs says that, unlike some wildlife charities, the trust doesn’t try to justify their work by arguing for the role pond life plays in ecosystems, either as prey, predators or pollinators.
He said: “The biodiversity of nature is important in itself, and there are enough people interested and passionate about it that we have never had to justify what we do more than that.”
- Find out more at freshwaterhabitats.org.uk
ASSIST IN AMPHIBIANS' CLIMATE CHANGE SURVEY
AS persistent rain and floods continue, the Freshwater Habitats Trust wants to know what this year will hold for amphibians, and whether garden ponds will provide alternative breeding sites.
Citizen scientists are asked to go to their garden or school pond and count the amount of spawn they can see.
- Pond life. Picture: Julia Page
The data can be compared with previous years’ surveys to see what effect climate change has on amphibians’ behaviour.
To take part, download a form from freshwaterhabitats.org/ projects/big-spawn-count
Surveyors can enter theIr results online afterwards.
HOW WILDLIFE AFFECTED THE RAF'S PLANS
THE difference in size between aircraft employed by the RAF and the great crested newt may be vast, but when RAF Brize Norton, above, was planning expansion in 2007, it had to accommodate for both.
- RAF Brize Norton
During the multi-million-pound Aircraft Servicing Platform project planning, the largest building project at the West Oxfordshire base since the 1960s, careful consideration had to be given to its effect on a colony of 32 newts in the airfield.
Natural England was called in to assist and over a few weeks, relocated the slimy road blocks to a specially-dug pond, complete with surrounding foraging habitat.
- 1988: Pond Action was set up at Oxford Brookes University by Dr Jeremy Biggs, Dr Roger Sweeting and Dr Anne Powell. For their first project, they conducted the first survey of a whole county’s pond life in Oxfordshire.
- 1994: Pond Action completed the first ever nationwide survey of pond life, which found that pond ecosystems were richer than anyone previously thought.
- A Lye Valley pond before the work
- 2004: The European Pond Conservation Network established by the trust, now called Pond Conservation, launched in Geneva.
- 2007: Pond Conservation secures recognition of wildlife-rich ponds as priority habitats under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
- 2009: Pond Conservation’s Million Ponds Project launched, to create a million new, clean ponds in the UK. More than 1,000 have already been dug.
- 2011: Natural England White Paper acknowledges ponds as a significant part of the freshwater environment, thanks to Pond Conservation.
- Dr Jeremy Biggs, right, measuring pollution with Andrew Smith MP at Pinkhill Meadow in Farmoor, one of the ponds to benefit from HLF cash, last year
- 2011: Water-friendly farming is launched at the House of Commons, hosted by Pond Conservation and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
- 2012: Phase two of Pond Conservation’s Million Ponds Project is launched at the House of Lords.
- 2013: The group changed its name to the Freshwater Habitats Trust, to indicate its broad work.