DNA gives game away if you’re persistent as a newt

THEY MAY grow to little more than six inches long, but they often leave developers crest-fallen.

Dr Chris Dennis taking samples from a pond

The protected species of great crested newts can cause costly re-thinks to building plans as they are covered under EU law and the Wildlife and Countryside Act, making it illegal to capture or kill them or to disturb their habitat.

Just confirming their presence can take up to six visits across the few months in the spring when they take to ponds to breed.

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But now developers are being offered a much quicker and cheaper way of discovering whether newts are there or not with a simple DNA test. The test, which can be taken in just one visit, detects the creatures’ presence from the skin, faeces, mucous, eggs or sperm they shed in water.

Newts held up building work on the new John Lewis store in York

Devised by a French lab, the “environmental DNA” test is now available in the UK from a Government-funded research centre in Yorkshire, which can provide a result to the customer in as little as 10 days.

Dr Chris Dennis, who heads the eDNA testing service at the York-based Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) said: “It is vital to know if great crested newts are present before developments can take place. They are an iconic species, whose habitats are strictly protected by law.

“eDNA analysis uses a single sampling visit per pond during the newt breeding season, offering rapid and accurate detection, whereas conventional survey methods can involve up to six visits to a site.

“A negative eDNA result removes the need for further site visits, saving developer’s time and money.”

A great crested newt

FERA, which carried out trials last year and the first wave of commercial testing, analysing about 800 samples, also think the test could be a boon to conservation groups who would normally have to apply for a licence if they wanted to survey a pond.

Dr Dennis said: “Basically an ecologist goes to a pond with a dipper, a small plastic tube on the end of a stick and takes 20 samples from the pond mixes them in a bag and takes out six samples of 15ml and put them into ethanol to preserve them.”

It sounds easier than the conventional approach which has to involve three different methodologies – including checking for the eggs that the newts lay in leaves which they then carefully fold with their hindlegs, setting bottle traps – which they then struggle to get out of, until released, and searching for them at night with torches.

Dr Eleanor Jones, from FERA, said people were lucky if they had seen a great crested newt, because their presence was patchy in the UK, and they were absent from some areas altogether.

She said: “They are endangered in this country. Their numbers have declined dramatically since records began. The population trend is still downwards. Scrubby bits on the edge of land are disappearing and ponds are being filled in. They spend most of their year hunting on land and a lot of farming has become more intensive which has squeezed available land to hunt on.”

In 2013, the start of work on the Monks Cross shopping development at York was delayed for months after the discovery of a breeding newt population. It led to John Lewis, which had been due to open at Christmas, opening last Easter instead.

The discovery of newts in a pond at RSPB Bempton delayed work on a new £1m visitor centre by a year. It will open this April.