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The fate of newts such as this greated crested newt on the link road route is causing concern (photo: Alexandre Roux).

Where have all the newts gone?

Concerns about the fate of newts displaced by the construction of the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road have been raised by Combe Haven Defenders. However, attempts to get a satisfactory answer – or any answer – from the responsible body, Natural England, have so far failed. CHD’s Andrea Needham reports.

A condition of planning permission for the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road is that the contractors provide (and follow) mitigation strategies for protected species which will be affected by the development. These include great crested newts, badgers, bats and dormice. According to Natural England (NE), the government body responsible for protecting the natural environment, including issuing – and monitoring – licences for work which might impact on protected species: “The aims of any mitigation strategy should be to preserve the population size and geographical distribution of the species impacted in the short term.”

Combe Haven Defenders have been concerned for some time that the newt mitigation strategy was not being followed by East Sussex County Council and its contractors, leading to potentially very serious consequences for wildlife.

In December 2013, we raised our concerns with solicitors specialising in environmental law.  They sent a letter detailing the issues to Natural England. Natural England ignored it.  Another letter was sent in January 2014, suggesting that there “may” be a “potentially serious breach of the [great crested newt] licence.”

The letter said that the lawyers were seeking “an urgent review of the position,” and asked NE to make a “licensing monitoring visit urgently next week.”  Six months later, Natural England has still to respond to the original letter. So much for urgency.

Damaged fencing and backwards badger gates

Damaged newt fencing.

The letter to NE set out various issues of concern.  These included:

1. The reptile exclusion fences (the green plastic fencing along the route) were in a bad state of repair at many locations, allowing newts (including great crested newts) to access the construction area;

 

'Badger gate set into newt fencing backwards, allowing badgers to enter but not exit.

2.  Several of the one-way gates to prevent badgers from re-entering the development had been attached the wrong way round so that badgers could be trapped inside the construction area.

Various issues of concern relating to great crested newts were brought to the attention of Natural England by Combe Haven Defenders as long ago as October 2012. In particular, we were concerned that the contractors in charge of newt mitigation measures had not started trapping in time before clearance and construction of the road started.

30 nights in suitable weather

Under NE guidelines newts are supposed to be trapped over a period of at least 30 suitable nights between March and October – that means, nights when the weather conditions are suitable.  Air temperature has to be over 5°C, and there has to be rain, or if no rain, there should have been some rain in the last few days, such that the ground is damp.

Hence, a requirement to trap for 30 mights might mean that the actual trapping period could extend over several months as many nights will not be suitable for trapping. We did not believe that the contractors had been able to trap for 30 suitable nights between March and October, and therefore construction should not have been started.

We wrote to NE in October 2012 detailing our worries.  We got a response from Kazz Lewis, who told us that:

“I can confirm that the site in question does have a licence, EPSM2012-4719.  Natural England are confident that the Method Statement and licence conditions are being met.”

We asked to see a copy of the licence, and got this reply from a different NE staff member, Karen Roberts:

“I apologise but contrary to the information you were given by my colleague (Kazz Lewis) on 10 October 2012 the EPS Great Crested Newt Mitigation Licence for this site EPSM2012-4719, has to date not been issued by Natural England. As a consequence no licensable works should be taking place on site at present and if they are this would be a Police matter.”

It transpired that East Sussex County Council had, through its contractor, applied for a great crested newt licence in both August and September 2012, but both applications had been rejected. Undeterred, ESCC carried on with some very questionable work.

Work carries on without a licence

In the period before being granted a licence, ESCC permitted its contractors to put up reptile fencing and to do archaeological ‘scraping’ close to a pond which was known to contain great crested newts.  When the latter was brought to the attention of NE, their response was that ecologists were on site during the archaeological work to ensure no offences were committed, and that they had also had a site meeting with the police, who were happy that everything was being done properly.

It does rather beg the question: if contractors can get away with doing licensable work without a licence, simply by having ecologists on hand, what’s the point of the licence?

500 newts: where are they now?

In January 2013, we had contacted PC Nick Marriott, the local police wildlife crime officer, about palmate newts.  The newt mitigation strategy  stated that there was a large population of palmate newts in a pond (pond 46) in the railway cutting underneath the Ninfield Road bridge in Sidley, with over 500 newts having been found in one visit.

Palmate newt (photo: H Krisp).

Although palmate newts are not a protected species, as great crested newts are, the exceptional population had been considered worthy of being conserved.  To that end, the mitigation strategy required that the newts (including some great crested newts) were to be trapped and removed to new ponds which were to be built in a field not far away, to the west of the railway cutting near Glover’s Farm.

Where the ponds should be, but aren't.

Despite visiting the area frequently that winter, we had never seen any evidence of newt trapping. Further, the new ponds to which the newts were supposed to be translocated had never been built, even though by this point the original pond was under several feet of hardcore.  Today, some 18 months later, the ponds have still not been built, although someone has stuck some wooden posts in the field which may suggest an intention to build them.  Not much help though to the newts which were supposed to be relocated into them.  Whether the newts were ever relocated, and where to, remains a mystery.

Nothing to see here

We raised these issues with PC Marriott.  He consulted with the site ecologist, who told him that the newts had been moved prior to the work starting, and relocated in other ponds – although clearly not the ones they were supposed to be relocated in.  We asked for evidence of this, but simply got the brush-off from PC Marriott:

“I note your comments.

“He [the site ecologist] has given me a suitable explanation and I have no reason not to believe him.

“The guide lines I have are clear, and they are to investigate ‘wildlife crime’.”

PC Marriott said that he was happy with the explanation, did not consider it a crime, and would not be pursuing the issue any further.  So that was that.

Newt fencing not maintained

By the summer of 2013, newt fencing was up across the valley.  This fencing is designed to prevent newts and reptiles from accessing the construction area.  However, in June that year we noticed that the fencing was in a very poor state of repair, and could not have prevented newts accessing the site.  We sent the following email to NE:

“We are concerned that East Sussex County Council is breaching the terms of its EPS [European protected species] licence in relation to the Bexhill Hastings Link Road and wonder if you could advise us.

“There is extensive reptile and newt fencing across the Combe Valley, which we believe is required to be kept in place and in good condition until the end of construction. When we walked the route of the road last weekend, we saw that in several places the fencing was damaged – photos attached.

“We would be grateful if you could let us know whether this is a breach of the terms of the licence, and if so, whether Natural England would be in a position to take action to enforce the licensing requirements.”

Damaged newt fencing near Watermill Stream, June 2013.

We attached several photos of the damaged fencing, including the one shown here. Our email was ignored, as were two follow-up emails.  It would appear that Natural England finds that the best way of dealing with members of the public who raise concerns is just to ignore them in the hope that sooner or later, they’ll go away.

 

More roadbuilding = more wildlife deaths

It may not be long before we see a huge increase in roadbuilding in East and West Sussex.  Recently local MPs, county councils and businesses came together to launch A27 Action, calling for the A27 to be expanded in places and bypassed in others (a group known as Scate has been set up to oppose this campaign).  Much of the roadbuilding would take place in the fragile and precious South Downs. No matter how good your mitigation strategy (and even if you are made to stick to it, as Link Road contractors seemingly have not been), you cannot build a road without causing very serious harm to wildlife, and anyone who says you can is deluding themselves.

However, when we spoke to Mark White, environment manager for the road, at the recent construction exhibition in Sidley, he assured us that not a single animal of a protected species had been harmed during construction.  So we can sleep easy in our beds: our wildlife is safe with East Sussex County Council and Natural England.

 

This is an amended version of an article originally published by Combe Haven Defenders.

Posted 14:47 Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014 In: Campaigns

3 Comments


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  1. Richard Heritage

    Yet another example of Natural Enlgand’s failure to do anything. The same goes for this Local Wildlife police officer PC Marriott who’s qualifications for such a position leaves great doubt. There have been several cases of him being called out to development sites relating to complaints of wildlife being abused. Out of five I know of the developer was always right of course and the complainant wrong.
    As for N.E. they rarely refuse a licence to remove wildlife. A government quango that has sadly failed its role in protecting wildlife

    Comment by Richard Heritage — Sunday, Sep 21, 2014 @ 18:45

  2. patricia stephenson

    It does appear that Natural England is failing in its duty to safeguard these protected species…..they issue licences etc for the re location of these creatures, advise on suitable exclusion fences but they seem very lax in following up complaints and concerns when residents report what they consider breaches of these mitigation strategies.

    Who remembers the sad reportage of badgers foraging in a field of manure up at this site because the tunnels provided by the developers as sett subsitutes were too narrow?

    And as the comment already on this site by DAR does illustrate the dilatory approach by Natural England…a shameful situation indeed…

    Comment by patricia stephenson — Sunday, Sep 21, 2014 @ 17:44

  3. DAR

    I’m afraid it’s another case of what the political/business class wants, the political business class gets. Paying lip service to environmental licences is just a routine part of the process as far as they are concerned, and if contractors cock up, then that’s usually described as “regrettable” by some suited schmuck who is trying to keep a straight face while saying it. Pass the brown envelope, old boy!
    What IS new and worrying about the this report is the responses (or lack of them) from Natural England.

    Comment by DAR — Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014 @ 21:21

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