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To accommodate demand for land-based studies, the Brackenhurst Campus of Nottingham Trent University (NTU) needs to up-grade the existing provision. This will require the construction of new teaching and accommodation facilities across the campus. Brackenhurst Campus is a rural facility with an 18th Century Hall and associated gardens of historical importance, surrounded by a 200 hectare estate located south of the minster town of Southwell in mid-Nottinghamshire. Much of the estate is managed for agriculture with livestock and arable systems, but other land-based disciplines including nature conservation, equine, horticulture and animal studies also make use of the estate.

The range of habitats on the estate provides for a high diversity of species and of particular interest is the presence of nationally and internationally protected species including great crested newt Triturus cristatus and bats. Both bats and newts have a particular association with the built environment at Brackenhurst.

The ponds and gardens surrounding the main hall and teaching facilities, together with the plantation woodlands, hedgerows and rough grassland field margins provide excellent habitat for newts. Newts are also found in artificial features such as dry stone walls, cable ducts, cable inspection pits and storm drains. Away from the built environment of the estate, newts have tended to be more scarce, because of the isolation of potential breeding ponds, which are more than 500m distance.

Given the size of the newt population at Brackenhurst, which is one of the largest in Nottinghamshire and their potential to be present just about anywhere near the buildings, any development risks having an adverse impact on newts. Newts and their habitats are protected from disturbance and harm and to derogate from the legal protection it is standard practice to apply for a licence for each development parcel. Such an approach is piecemeal, time-consuming and can be very expensive.

Typical newt refugia at Brackenhurst; former patio area containing 30 adult newts

On behalf of NTU, Baker Consultants entered into negotiation with Natural England to adopt a more sustainable, cost effective and long-term solution for the protection of newts during and after the development programme. The timing of the discussion coincided with a new approach by Natural England to the provision of European Protected Species licences for development. The UK government web-site stated that Natural England was adopting a new approach. “Four innovative new policies have been created that will smooth the process for businesses who require a wildlife licence for their project, saving them time and money. In return, they will fund an unprecedented level of investment in the creation and enhancement of wildlife habitat. This will provide greater security for populations of European protected species such as dormice, bats and great crested newts.

The new policies provided NTU with an opportunity to take a new approach to newt conservation and Baker Consultants were commissioned to prepare a ‘Phased Licence’ for the entire campus development programme. In practice this has committed NTU to a programme of mitigation including the enhancement of three existing ponds and creation of four new ponds, combined with the creation and enhancement of terrestrial habitats including woodlands and field boundaries. The work will be carried out under the supervision of Baker Consultants and will be implemented by contractors with significant input from staff and students. The network of new and existing ponds means that there are no longer distances of more than 300m between ponds and the enhancement of terrestrial habitat will enable newts to expand across the entire campus and in the long-term expand towards other known populations in the Southwell area.

Unoccupied pond at Brackenhurst that is, at present, more than 350m from
the nearest breeding pond

Most of the development work is still at the planning stage and whilst there is a memorandum of understanding with the Local Planning Authority this was not sufficient for Natural England. As such, NTU have entered into a legal agreement to deliver the mitigation, mostly in advance of the development work, which is itemised in a management plan that will last for 25 years. For some of the development proposals trapping and translocation will be essential to ensure that the population is protected, but in other examples where sub-optimal habitat is effected, a destructive search will be sufficient even when the development is close to newt breeding ponds.

The legally binding and long-term commitment by NTU has enabled Baker Consultants to deliver a sustainable and cost-effective solution to the potential constraints to development that the presence of European protected species can cause. The positive conservation action should extend the range and size of the population encouraging expansion beyond the boundaries of the campus.

 

We are very pleased to have won Nottingham Trent Universities’ supplier award for best contribution to social value and sustainability for our work of Great Crested Newts at the Brackenhurst Campus.

The official press release reads as follows. “Baker Consultants has been working closely with NTU’s Brackenhurst Campus on its ambitious redevelopment programme to ensure biodiversity of the estate was not only protected but enhanced. Of high priority was the protection of the populations of Great Crested Newts; Brackenhurst Campus supports one of the largest and best studied populations in the county. Working with NTU, Baker Consultants was successful in obtaining a Phased European Protected Species License for the entire Brackenhurst development programme. Only a handful of phased licences have been issued across England, and this is the first of its kind for a University campus. Implementation of the licence will require collaboration and input from contractors, staff and students and NTU has committed to undertake a twenty-five year management programme. Baker Consultants will continue to work with NTU to ensure that the conditions of the licence are implemented and our biodiversity assets are protect, monitored and enhanced.”

Environmental DNA (eDNA) testing is a recognised survey technique for establishing the presence or absence of great crested newts in ponds during the breeding season. Using eDNA sampling has many advantages for projects, including fast turnaround times and potentially eliminating the need for further surveys – both factors which have beneficial cost implications for projects.

Great Crested Newts (like this one picture) are European Protected Species. Image by Senior Ecologist, Matt Cook

Great Crested Newts (like this one pictured) are European Protected Species. Image by Senior Ecologist, Matt Cook

Advantages of eDNA Sampling

eDNA sampling has a number of advantages over more traditional methods of surveying for great crested newts, allowing samples to be collected up until 30th June. The protocol requires only one daytime visit by a licenced ecologist during the newt breeding season to determine presence or absence. This means that eDNA sampling has the potential to reduce the level of survey effort needed in comparison to conventional methods, which require a minimum of four survey visits, each including evening and morning survey, between April and June.

There are a number of scenarios where this technique can benefit projects, including:

  • As a cost effective way of scoping future survey requirements (i.e. population size class assessment surveys) for projects where there is sufficient time available to carry out the detailed conventional survey the following year.
  • To confirm absence in ponds that are considered to have low potential to support great crested newts but where further confirmation is required.
  • For ponds with high potential to support great crested newts, and where a key part of the conventional survey period (mid-April to mid-May) has been missed, but where there is still time available to collect eDNA samples (before 30th June). In this situation, an eDNA finding of “absence” would avoid the need for further conventional presence/absence survey.

eDNA Sampling

Great crested newt DNA is released into aquatic environments through shed skin cells, urine, faeces and saliva. The trace DNA can persist in water for several weeks and collected using the detailed sampling and analysis protocol that has been devised (samples should be collected between 15th April and 30th June). Samples are then sent to a recognised laboratory for analysis. The highly sensitive laboratory testing is based on qPCR, allowing detection of great crested newt presence or absence.

Laboratory testing is conducted by our partner NatureMetrics, a highly experienced company who have conducted GCN eDNA analysis since 2015. NatureMetrics follow Natural England’s approved protocol (WC1067), which ensures that the test meets regulatory requirements. As industry leaders, NatureMetrics provide a quality service, and scored 100% in the 2018 proficiency test.

Testing turnaround times can be suited to the project’s needs. Options include Standard Turnaround (10 working days from receipt of sample in the lab) and Fast Turnaround service (5 working days from receipt). Super-fast turnaround (2 days) is also usually available on request.

Baker Consultants has extensive experience in great crested survey and mitigation, including major infrastructure project work involving thousands of newts and complex EPS licensing. We have numerous licenced great newt surveyors and we have undertaken eDNA survey work since in 2015.

 

As recently reported by BBC News and BBC Radio 4, Natural England’s consultation on proposed changes to how it implements protected species legislation (especially for great crested newts) ends this week. Great crested newts are a protected species under EU and domestic law due to their overall European conservation status. Under the legislation, great crested newts receive the highest level of protection.

Natural England's consultation concerns great crested newts, like this one pictured. Image by Senior Ecologist, Matt Cook

Natural England’s consultation concerns great crested newts, like this one pictured. Image by Senior Ecologist, Matt Cook

However, many in the industry (including developers, consultants, ecologists and voluntary organisations) have long expressed the view that the current administration of the legislation is not only overly strict and costly to implement, but also does little for the protection of the species. The fundamental problem was the principle of protecting each and every newt, rather than looking to maintain the species at a population level, which is what is actually required by the law.

The consultation

Our Managing Director, Andrew Baker, is an expert in nature conservation law and has been working with the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) to assist Natural England in the run up to this consultation.

The new proposals by Natural England aim to make the current licensing system more flexible and strategic while ensuring that populations of newts are protected.

“This isn’t a change in the law, but rather a change in the way that the law is implemented by Natural England. For some time, I have felt that the legislation hasn’t been interpreted properly: it doesn’t make ecological sense to protect every single newt while ignoring the health of the overall population. This proposed change in how Natural England is implementing the law is very much welcomed and I feel that it much more closely reflects the letter of the law and will also have greater conservation benefit”, says Andrew.

More about great crested newts

The great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) is the largest of Britain’s three indigenous newt species. They are black in colour with an orange and black spotted belly. The main threats to the survival of the great crested newt are habitat destruction and fragmentation as a result of anthropogenic development. Emerging infectious diseases such as chytridiomycosis, caused by a pathogenic fungus, also pose a significant threat to this species.

Great crested newt by Matt Cook

Great crested newt by Matt Cook, Senior Ecologist

Great crested newts and their breeding sites are protected by the EU Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

Great crested newts can be surveyed between March and June using standard methods and between 15th April and 30th June using eDNA sampling. Surveys include torchlight surveys, netting, terrestrial search, egg search (on suitable vegetation) and bottle trapping.

Read more about great crested newt surveys here.

Following a successful period of trapping, our ecologists cleared amphibians from all areas of the Thorpe Park site in 2015 and relocated them to the Green Park receptor site. This work was carried out before newts, toads and frogs entered into a reduced activity period over winter.

Newt fencing at Thorpe Park business park by Assistant Ecologist Katie Watson

Newt fencing at Thorpe Park business park by Assistant Ecologist Katie Watson

Around Christmas, we began habitat improvements in the receptor site and since then have completed a number of key tasks. This included the creation of three new ponds and two hibernacula (these are buried log piles that provide refuge for newts, toads and frogs). Additionally, a large bund has been reduced and one of the existing ponds has been re-modelled to enhance its ecology.

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In preparation for the spring, our ecologists have also been busy mounting bat and bird boxes in wooded areas on and adjacent to the Thorpe Park site. These boxes will provide roosting and nesting opportunities. Over the next month, aquatic vegetation will be translocated to the new and existing ponds in Green Park. Final mitigation works will include sowing a wildflower seed-mix in the receptor site and hand-clearing the wetland areas of any remaining amphibians.

Read more about our work at Thorpe Park here.