For the second of my books, The Thin Green Line, I wrote part of it based on cases investigated by my wildlife crime officer colleagues in other UK police forces. One such officer was Neil Hughes, the then wildlife crime officer for Leicestershire, who gave me details of a case involving great-crested newts that he investigated. Since it is one of the more unusual wildlife crime investigations, and since it is a wet day and I can’t work outside, it is a chance for me to reproduce this particular chapter:
In 2004 a developer purchased land on which he intended to build two executive properties. There was a pond on the land and a local resident advised the developer of the presence of great-crested newts. Great-crested newts are a European Protected Species and though it is not believed they are particularly rare, certainly not in the Leicestershire area, they are under-surveyed and therefore actual numbers are unknown. These newts usually live in small ponds in fields and gardens. They do particularly well in ponds that dry out during the year because these are less likely to contain predatory fish. As well as telling the developer, the resident also informed Neil who, in true tradition of police wildlife crime officers, sought out his resident expert for the species at issue.
In due course, along with his great-crested newt expert, Neil visited the proposed development site and saw the developer. Since no offence had been committed at that point Neil advised the developer to obtain an ecological survey, which he did. As it happens, some local authority planning departments will as a matter of course ask for ecological surveys in planning applications, which is not only good practice but likely to keep them on the right side of the law. The ecological survey advised him of the presence of great-crested newts in the pond and of action that could be taken in requesting a licence from Defra to re-locate the wee amphibians which in due course would allow the work to go ahead. This advice was ignored by the developer, possibly because of the cost, and he continued with work in the vicinity of the pond.
Neil was contacted a year later when this work was underway. The ecology company revisited the site and completed a report showing the work carried out by the developer was in contravention of their survey. After gathering evidence Neil charged the developer, who was summonsed for three offences under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994. His company was summonsed for the same three offences. The charges were intentionally or recklessly damaging or destroying a structure or place used by great-crested newts for shelter or protection, which of course was their pond, and intentionally or recklessly disturbing a great-crested newt. These offences are under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 but the newts, as European Protected Species (EPS) are also protected under the Habitats Regulations 1994, and a charge under these Regulations was added for the damage or destruction of their habitat.
On first appearance at court in January 2007, the developer asked, on behalf of himself and his company, if he could plead guilty to four of the six offences. This was accepted by the crown prosecutor and he was fined a total of £8,400 plus £70 costs, the highest fine currently for offences involving great-crested newts. An interesting aspect of this case is the number of conservation organisations that became involved, so much so that the developer probably had no option but to plead guilty. Neil involved the Local Authority Ecology Unit, a local newt expert, an ecology company based in Nottinghamshire and the Wildlife Trust. The basis for this was it was they who had completed the survey for the defendant, then in rejection of their advice on the action that needed to be undertaken, had been told by him that they weren’t required. Neil had them revisit the site after the work had been carried out, and they saw that the work had been carried out in disregard of their survey advice.
Letters were also sent to the court from more newt allies: the local Amphibian Network and Froglife, which helped to persuade the magistrates of the seriousness of such conservation matters. The Environment Agency also produced for the court a very detailed survey of water quality showing how the work had effectively killed the pond. This survey was carried out by a senior analyst free of charge since the Environment Agency was keen to become more involved in conservation.
Newts obviously have lots of friends.
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