Great crested newts (Triturus cristatus) are the largest native newt species in Britain and are legally protected. They are widely distributed across lowland Great Britain, but absent from Ireland. Across Europe, numbers of great crested newts have declined, largely due to the loss of ponds and habitat deterioration. They spend a significant proportion of their time on land and return to waterbodies to breed in the spring.
The great crested newt is the largest of the three native species of newt and can grow up to 17cm in length. They are usually dark brown or black with a ‘warty’ or bumpy skin. Their underside is bright orange with black patches. The males develop a jagged crest along their backs in the spring with a white stripe. Females do not have a crest. Great crested newt larvae are mottled with black spots and have a long filament at the tip of their tail.
Habitats and lifecycle
Great crested newts spend a large amount of time on land feeding, dispersing, resting and hibernating. From around late September to mid-October, when night temperatures drop, they enter hibernation until temperatures warm up again from early February.
The habitats great crested newts can be found in on land include:
- Rough grassland.
- Cracks or crevices in the ground.
- Bases of hedgerows.
- Mammal burrows.
From February until April/May, adults will move from their hibernation sites to their breeding ponds. Once they reach their ponds, they can breed between early March and the end of June (with seasonal variation). Females will lay large numbers of eggs within a waterbody, with each egg wrapped inside the leaves of pond plants.
Whilst great crested newts prefer to breed in small to medium sized ponds, they are also known to occur in other habitats including:
- Large ponds.
- Drainage ditches.
- Storage tanks.
- Mineral extraction sites.
Great crested newts can travel large distances between breeding ponds and their resting places, and it is considered that they may be supported by land within 500m of a pond.
Due to the decline of the species across Europe, great crested newts are a European Protected Species. As such, they are protected by both European and UK legislation, meaning it is illegal to:
- Capture, kill, disturb or injure a great crested newt (either deliberately or by not taking enough care).
- Damage or destroy their resting or breeding place.
- Obstruct access to their resting or sheltering places.
- Possess, sell, control or transport live or dead newts, or parts of them.
- Take great crested newt eggs.
Any such offence could result in a prison sentence of up to 6 months and a £5,000 fine for each offence.
Works that could affect great crested newts
Situations where great crested newts could be present and therefore affected by works include:
- Maintenance works to ponds, woodland, scrub or rough grassland.
- Removing dense, scrub vegetation and ground disturbance.
- Removing materials, such as dead wood piles.
- Ground excavation works.
- Filling in or destroying ponds or other water bodies.
Great crested newts and development proposals
If it is considered that great crested newts could be affected by a development, further surveys by an ecologist may be necessary. It is usually necessary to check for great crested newts if:
- There are historical records of newts within the land, or close to the land proposed for development.
- There is a waterbody within 500m of the application site boundary.
The first stage of a survey is likely to determine the habitat suitability index score. This will help assess how likely it is that great crested newts will use the site. If this score finds that newts may be present, a more detailed set of surveys will be required. It is only generally possible to undertake newt surveys in waterbodies between mid-March and early June and between four and six visits will be required during that time.
If great crested newts are found to be present and are considered likely to be affected by the proposals, it may be necessary to obtain a protected species licence from Natural England in advance of works taking place. As part of the licence, a mitigation strategy will be required which will detail how impacts on newts and their habitats will be avoided or minimised wherever possible.
In August 2015, Natural England launched a pilot project in Surrey to bring more flexibility to the licensing system. The project aims to take a more strategic approach, ensuring that resources are focused on newt populations and habitat that will bring the greatest benefits, and making the licensing process more straightforward.
A local conservation plan will be prepared that will identify areas where development will have the least impact and specify where new habitats will be created, so that when development results in habitat loss, the habitat gains will already be in place to compensate.