Monday, 24 November 2014

Newts in Britain: This is What Happened

I wrote the other week of protection of the Great-crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) in Britain as a result of habitat loss, and, for habitat loss, read the filling-in and building-over of suitable ponds. The local Common or Smooth Newts (now Lissotriton vulgaris, then Triturus vulgaris which in the breeding season were abundant in local ponds, slow-moving streams and ditches, got me interested in zoology. To illustrate what has happened to those habitats since 1960, I show the following two images from Google Earth of places I used to find newts. In one, the slow-moving stream has been culverted and, in places, built over. In the second, the pond has disappeared and the area is covered in football pitches. Local authorities just loved to 'tidy' remaining wild places, even if a habitat was not actually built over, and as a result ponds, streams and ditches which were ideal for children to explore have gone.

A small stream ran from right to left across this land in the 1950s
The pond that was here is now part of a football pitch

I never found a Great-crested Newt in this same area. However, I was intrigued to find the result of a survey for some building scheme that showed such an animal had been found in the past few years in the garden of a house. A note on the survey said that the site had been cleared in 1991 and the newts moved elsewhere. In other words, the pond had been filled in as houses were built. I never found this pond with its Great-crested Newt when I was looking in the 1950s and early 1960s. It must have been on an area of land that was allotments, nurseries and orchards (and described as such on the 1935 land-use map). I can see the land in my mind's eye now but I can only think it was at behind one of the large houses that stood back from the road and surrounded by orchards. Sadly, my friend at primary school who scrumped apples from these orchards (when not playing cowboys and indians with cap pistols and home-made tomahawks) and who might have been able to remember a pond there died many years ago.

However, moving on from my annoyance at not having found a pond that held Great-crested Newts in the 1950s, I do have a question: Is there any evidence that catching and moving Great-crested Newts from areas chosen for building 'development' have any effect on the size of the population? Or is translocation just 'greenwash', in other words, a load of eyewash that obfuscates conservation and protection and thereby permits builders and public bodies to pay lip service to conservation while filling in another pond?