Crested newts have been known to occur in the ponds at Spitalfields City Farm for 20 years or more, the result of an introduction of newts to a nearby garden pond. However, the farm’s ponds are also home to non-native Alpine Newts and European Tree Frogs, presumably from the same source. There has always been an element of doubt, therefore, as to whether the crested newts were the native Great Crested Newt, which is strictly protected under national and European Union law, or the extremely similar, non-native Italian Crested Newt.
These two species are almost impossible to separate with certainty except by analysis of their DNA, a process which, until recently, would have been very costly and have required a licence from Natural England to handle and take a few cells from what is likely to be a European protected species.
Recent scientific advances have found that DNA from newts and other amphibians gets into the water of their breeding ponds, and techniques are not available to alalyse this “environmental DNA (eDNA)” to identify which species are present. This is relatively inexpensive and, as it does not require handling or harming the animals, does not need a licence. So, this spring, the Biodiversity Officer obtained a collecting kit, collected water samples, and sent them off to Surescreen Scientifics for analysis. The results have just come back, and confirm that they are Great Crested Newts.
Clearly, it makes a big difference to the farm, and also to the assessment of nearby development proposals, whether the newts are a European protected species or a similar non-native species with no protection. The uncertainty has now been removed. The farm staff and volunteers know they have an important population of a protected species to look after, and can take steps to get a licence to cover their educational pond-dipping. All management operations around the ponds will have to take account of protecting newts. And the Council’s planners know that the presence of a European protected species in the area needs to be considered when dealing with nearby planning applications.
The header photo, taken by Michelle Sinden, shows Great Crested Newts at Spitalfields City Farm, being handled by a Froglife staff member with a licence to do so. It is an offence to handle or disturb these newts without a licence.