The great crested newt is a species which has been at odds with construction projects, delaying construction progress that has resulted in delays that are not cheap.
Then UK prime minister Boris Johnson called them a drag on the economy due to the costly delays, and Ed Sheeran’s proposal to build a wedding chapel on his Suffolk estate was halted because of the newt.
Well, apparently what we need to solve this problem is some good pooches.
Now, seeing what happened to Ed Sheeran and what the former prime minister said, newts may seem like a nuisance, but they play crucial ecological roles.
Before human involvement in changing habitats and landscapes, they breed in ponds and ditches during the spring and early summer, before emerging to spend most of their time on land. That means they have the special ability to recycle nutrients from water to land.
In addition, the newts also have an important role in the food chain: they eat small invertebrates and are prey for many species of reptile, mammal and bird.
Unfortunately, their populations have been in a decline due to the large-scale habitat loss, climate change, and change in farming practices.
Newts and construction projects
In total, there are now only 478,000 ponds remaining in the UK’s countryside. That’s a 50% decline compared to a century ago. And out of that percentage, only 20% of the remaining ponds are suitable for breeding great crested newts.
That’s why the newts are now under protection, making it illegal to harm the critters’ habitat. And, construction projects can only continue if there are suitable, new habitats made for them.
Relocating them is no piece of cake, however, as the current methods include installation of drift fencing, pitfall traps (sunken buckets in the ground) and searching by hand,
While they’re not harmful towards the newts, they’re time-consuming, restricted to certain seasons, expensive and are often hampered by the weather. Moreover, great crested newts also tend to hide underground in mammal burrows and other inaccessible refuges, where they are hard to locate.
But by looking at our dear canine companions’ ability to sniff out things, like I mentioned on this post, researchers were able to utilize their strong sense of smell as an effective tool for managing the populations of great crested newts.
The researchers tested their theory with Freya, a trained English springer spaniel, which was highly accurate at detecting great crested newts, even at distances of up to 2 meters above the ground (87% accuracy) and through 20 cm (about 7.87 in) of soil (88% accuracy).
Therefore, by using dogs’ ability, there’s now an alternative for locating the newts in inaccessible underground shelters.
The researchers trialed Freya’s ability over 128 times to fully understand the impact of various distances between target newts and Freya on her ability to locate them.
They also tested how well the pooch could detect the newts by presenting her with two different soil types: clay and sand. In some instances, we placed a vent within the soil to mimic a mammal burrow.
The English springer spaniel accurately located every individual great crested newt across the entire range of tested distances. When Freya detected the smell of a great crested newt, she would lie down and point at where the scent was emerging from. Isn’t that adorable and praiseworthy?
Freya could also locate individual newts both in soils with and without vents, but she could do her job a lot faster and more accurately under clay soil compared to sand.
According to the researchers, this was caused by the type of odor that the newts emit and how it reacts with the soil. The newts use moisture to transport pheromones during their aquatic life phase, and when there’s moisture within clay soil, that may transport the odor to the surface more readily than in sandy soil.
Moreover, the researchers found that air temperature affected how quickly and accurately Freya could detect the newts. When it’s hot, moisture evaporates at the surface, therefore making it harder for dogs to locate the scent.
Per the research, using dogs to locate great crested newts underground may also offer valuable insights into the habitat that newts prefer.
Much of the UK’s land is owned by private hands, which makes it a lot more complicated when one wants to conserve the habitats of some species. Conservationists have to think of ways to restore or rejuvenate nature on such lands, especially when they’re occupied by businesses, including farms, estates and golf courses.
Before, ponds existed on British farmland to water livestock, which offered habitats for amphibians to breed in. But now, sheep and cattle drink from troughs. And, many wetlands which used to sustain wildlife have been drained to create timber plantations and golf courses.
Now, in the country, all of the native frog, toad, and newt species have declined since 1945—one species called the pool frog were dying out in the 90s. The causes vary from climate change, disease, and invasive species, but one of the greatest pressures is habitat loss due to land development.
As more land is developed for houses, roads and shops, those wild and marshy patches where amphibians thrive are getting wiped away from maps.
But, instead of the usual, easy way of imposing rules on land managers, one expert says that it’s better to talk with them about their interests and what they saw as important.
Conservation can still happen
At times, pride in their heritage and the opportunity to be seen as good stewards of the land were what most motivated those landowners.
For instance, there was one site which had been in the owner’s family since the 17th century, and the farmers felt a connection to their land and the wildlife that lived on it, so the owner was moved to improve the land.
Another who had grown up near a golf course where he buys worked remembered catching newts and tadpoles as a child and wanted his grandchildren to be able to see them too.
Therefore, he used his influence with the club committee to convince them that a pond wouldn’t just be good for nature, but would improve the appearance of the course.
After some convincing, some projects were able to turn golf courses in private lands into haven for the amphibians. Within five years, 24 out of the 25 ponds are inhabited by amphibians.
And after comparing the restored habitat with 88 long-established ones in the area, the researchers who initiated the project said that all five species were breeding in them, including the locally rare great-crested newt. In addition, on average, the restored ponds held more species than the pre-existing ones.
Should we start training dogs to be the newt’s detector?
The researchers stated that while the dogs seem to give a good solution to the costly delays with construction activities, they acknowledge that training dogs and handlers to find great crested newts takes a long time. “It can take up to two years for a dog and its handler to become operational,” the researchers wrote.
For one, dog handlers must be aware of their environmental surroundings and how temperature and soil type may impact the dispersal of the newts’ odor.
In addition, the newts’ lifecycle is complex: great crested newts spend time both above and below the ground, as well as in inaccessible underground hiding places.
So, potential dog detectives must be exposed to all different types of scenarios during training. This is to ensure that they can distinguish between a scent that is accessible above the ground and a more diluted scent at a distance with precision.
All in all, the researchers said that despite the dogs’ potential to protect this rare species and reduce costly construction delays, it’s going to take some time to fully unleash these dog detectives.
“The complexity of the newts’ life phases and the time-consuming training process for dogs and handlers means it will take time before this effective new method becomes commonplace,” the researchers wrote.