But which would you want as a neighbour?

Newt

We believe in democracy around here. So let’s canvas your opinion. Above you will see an image featuring three creatures with a noticeable presence in this area. The first is the Great Crested Newt. The second is the rector of Imperial College, Sir Richard Sykes. And the third is his estates director David Brooks Wilson.

The question — and this is not entirely academic — is this. If you could have only one of these three living near to you in Wye, which would it be? Kindly choose in our poll in the sidebar. And once you’ve answered — or ignored the question entirely — please read on to find out why we ask.

The first thing to understand is that, while Richard Sykes and David Brooks Wilson may have it in their power to destroy Wye as we know it, only one of these three lives here, and has done probably for a couple of thousand years, and with a bit of luck may do so for a few thousand to come. Yes, Triturus cristatus, an elusive little fellow who does no-one any harm, unless you happen to be one of the insects, snails, froglets, or baby newts (they’re little lizardy things, OK?) which form their diet.

Wye has great crested newts. They just love the place. As Imperial’s architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill told a meeting last week, they live in at least seventeen ponds across the Wye estate and pose a ‘significant setback’ to the development of Wye Park.

How significant? A sight more than SOM let on last week that’s for sure. Because our newt friends are very clever little chaps indeed, and that ‘they only live in 17 ponds’ line isn’t going to pass muster if this scheme ever reaches the stage of getting scrutinised by the likes of English Nature either.

GNewt.JPG

This lovely little fellow is a pain in the butt for property developers. Ahh…..

It’s as simple as this. Most of us think we know newts, and we don’t. Pond-living creatures? Not at all. These little fellows actually spend much of their time on land, sometimes venturing several hundred metres from their pond. They also often depend upon several ponds, linked by suitable land habitats. They also happen to be an endangered species — at the European level under Annex IVa to the EU Habitats and Species Directive 1992 — that has declined in numbers significantly over recent decades, largely due to habitat loss, and are now protected by law.

Before Imperial start turning over turf, perhaps they ought to consider the fate of a few people who have messed with the crested newt (and English Nature). These are nasty sagas of fines and public embarrassment, of the kind an institution of Imperial’s stature would surely wish to avoid. You can also find English Nature’s guidelines for developers on dealing with the creature here, which make plain that dealing with this little fellow is not something to be taken lightly.

In fact it is both expensive and unavoidable for anyone who wants to build anything even in the vicinity of one of those ponds. As one report puts it…

Planning permission for a site at Olney was conditional on their carrying out a full environment survey. This revealed the presence of one great crested newt in a pond. The mitigation which was thus required involved fencing the pond and translocating the newt after its hibernation. Later, two others were found. All three were moved to a suitable site. The total cost of this activity to date is £40,138.50, with the developer expecting to pay another £5,000 before the project is completed.

The developer was also anxious to point out the additional, less visible, costs with which they are faced in these circumstances. These include paying interest for a year on a loan of £1-3million, and management salaries for the same duration: together, this may amount to well in excess of £100,000.

Oh dear! And newtie is just one of the endangered species that would be affected by Imperial’s attempt to destroy the AONB in Wye. We haven’t even looked at nightjars yet…

Should this surprise anyone? Not if you’ve walked the Downs hereabouts, surely. There’s a reason this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty after all. It is… um, outstanding. But if you’re some satanically cold-hearted, soulless, amoral, slick-suited, funny handshake wielding, avaricious, congenitally life-hating townie property developer type who’s looking to make a fast buck from buying land at agricultural prices then selling it on at commercial ones… well, tough. That’s how it is, pal. And I suspect we can bring you even more bad news on this front before long (if anyone out there knows it, please pass it on swiftish).

Want to understand more about newts in Kent? Here is a wonderful introduction. Here you can find the BBC’s take on the species. Here you can see some lovely images and videos of great crested newts. Here you will find Kent’s red book, the authoritative list of the county’s endangered species, which may turn out to be compulsory reading for opponents of Wye Park before long. You can also find out lots of interesting information at the Kent Reptile and Amphibian Group.

Will Triturus cristatus be more endangered if the councils let Richard Sykes have his way? You bet.

Do the triumvirate of Imperial, KCC and Ashford Council care? We shall see…

But I am starting to get a feeling that old newtie will be around a lot longer than they will.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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