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SUFFOLK PONDS AND GREAT CRESTED NEWT TRITURUS CRISTATUS CONSERVATION: THE NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE OF SUFFOLK COUNTY ANALYSIS TOM LANGTON Background The neglect, destruction and decline in number of freshwater ponds in Suffolk have been relatively recently reviewed (Langton, Millins & Langton, 2007). One of the most worrying aspects of the exercise was the apparent perception in nature conservation circles that the decline of ponds in the county was no longer a significant factor. The review illustrated not only the plight of ponds but that number of them remaining, as suggested by a report published by English Nature represented a considerable overestimate of around 40%. A new estimate of around 11,500 remaining Suffolk ponds was made. Those aquatic and semi-aquatic species dependent upon these freshwater habitats including one of Europe’s strictly protected declining amphibian species were likely to be threatened and still declining as a function of continued habitat loss. The matter is of legal and international significance as requirement to protect ponds and some pond-dependant species is a Member State duty of the Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, (the Habitats Directive, adopted in 1992) and the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats 1979. Over-estimating habitat and species The issue is of national and international significance because the 2007 ponds review findings also clashed with conclusions drawn by English Nature on numbers of great crested newt (GCN) breeding ponds and published Biodiversity Action Plan targets that had been formed a few years earlier. The number of national GCN breeding ponds appeared massively exaggerated, with equally improbable (and since almost completely unachieved) 2010 Biodiversity Action Plan targets and huge proposed 2020 targets that do not relate to any process that might realistically deliver them let alone the 2010 shortfall. These figures appeared to rest upon a combination of poor use of data and broad based extrapolation. Extrapolations rest heavily on an exercise called the Countryside Survey that has been used to try to give a general summary of change to the number and quality of features of the countryside. Evidence that what has happened to ponds and newts in Suffolk has happened elsewhere in the UK and particularly highly intensive arable farming meant that there was a possibility of conservation of GCN and other declining and pond-dependent species being wholly undermined by insufficient conservation response. More recently in 2011 Natural England, the government agency taking over from English Nature; issued a report ‘Assessing population status of the great crested newt in Great Britain’ (Wilkinson et. al., 2011). This report referred to previous estimates and a previous independent technical review document produced in 2009 that had looked in more detail at the 30 years of implementation of International Wildlife Conventions, European and UK Law for GCN in the United Kingdom, 1979-2009 (Langton, 2009).

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The NE 2011 report indicates that previous national GCN estimates adopted by the DEFRA ministry and the UK as a European Union Member State were inflated. It begins usefully by lowering the proposed number of remaining GCN breeding sites down considerably from 100,000 ponds, to around 46,000. This is a good start as it takes the ridiculousness out of the situation but in itself is still insufficient because it is still an overestimate based upon an inadequate baseline. The report does not address the limitations of the Countryside Survey data in respect of pond loss and creation which was a main finding of the 2009 review. This leaves a major area of concern that relates to UK obligations for Surveillance of GCN and its habitat under the Articles of the Habitats Directive still inadequately addressed. Use of Ordnance survey data There are further serious concerns for which the previous work on Suffolk ponds provides a useful insight. In particular there is a significant problem in the main methodology of the NE 2011 report that relates to the apparent further miss-application of Ordnance Survey data. In the report Ordnance Survey Master Map Pond Polygon (MMPP) data has been used in attempt to estimate the number of remaining non-garden ponds in Britain. Much as the first EN study of Suffolk miscounted the word ‘pond’ on maps amongst other simple problems to derive an overestimate, the MMPP counts small bits of coloured feature in the dataset to derive a pond count. In doing so it has similar problems to the English Nature Suffolk pond study. The areas on the map coded blue may be old wells, short sections of river, canal, saltwater features and other non-pond features, including ponds long since in-filled but not removed from the data set. The method used is an unreliable basis to estimate pond numbers as although it may not show a few recently created water bodies it consistently creates over-estimates. A cross check on the Ordnance Survey MMPP data used was carried out in order to examine the extent of the overestimate using this method. Use of the MMPP method indicated 17,350 individual features in Suffolk that were assigned to being ponds. In fact the method uses an area with slightly different borders to the County boundary, but only marginally so. The critique of the EN report on Suffolk (Langton et. al., 2007) gave an in-depth analysis for that sample county. The published figures indicate that the MMPP method, like the older yet similar method also produces a considerable overestimate for Suffolk –for the new MMPP method around a 32 % over-estimate of pond numbers. Suffolk could have less than 10,000 extant ponds (Langton et. al., 2007 op. cit.). A very high proportion of remaining ponds were found to be in highly neglected and often extreme late successional state, according to a large field sample conducted by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust in recent years. How Suffolk helps the national perspective Applying the Suffolk sample as a correction factor to the suggested national pond numbers (see the NE 2011 online report page 45) brings down the midpoint for the national UK GCN breeding pond (over-)estimates from around 46,000 to 31,000 ponds. Most significantly, it brings down the number of ponds likely to be viable breeding ponds (with a Habitat Suitability Indices

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(Oldham et. al., 2000) score of 0¡6 or more) from around 26,600 to around 17,500. This is close to where previous (NCC/JNCC) studies in the 1990s suggested the estimate of remaining GCN breeding ponds should be. This makes a huge difference, for example in Suffolk there are likely to be hundreds of GCN ponds left rather than in excess of 5000 as implied by the overestimates. Of those hundreds actually left most are small and isolated. It may be that those few large and multi-pond GCN (meta-) populations that are known, now represent much of the core of all that is left. Suffolk and the rest of the UK is seeing many widespread and common pond species becoming fragmented to levels where damaged population fluidity means that recovery is theoretically unlikely or much harder. GCN has more fully joined the natterjack toad Epidalea (Bufo) calamita as one of our two rare native amphibians struggling for survival due to increasing isolation and lack of conservation attention. Does broad based modelling contribute? In some cases, protected species distribution has been approached using modelling to create sensitivity maps. One question is how much of a solution can modelling truly offer for GCN? The NE 2011 GCN report in its construction makes a very large number of broad based assumptions. Any one of these could make the analysis of modelling and modelling potential unclear and uncertain. While the report candidly (and worryingly in the context of European obligations) concludes that the approaches being taken to surveillance are insufficient it also concludes that it is unclear how to approach them and gives a series of options littered with unqualified comments. The appearance is one of a continued lack of control of the situation rather than any form of determined action. The use of modelling in nature conservation should imply informed and reliable evidence-based approaches. However it is only a strong approach when served with adequate background information of a type that does not yet exist for ponds and near-pond land habitats. Sadly the NE report can hardly be considered any form of developed exit strategy to address the well-defined problems of pond and GCN protection and conservation, as required by law and international convention. Further there is an impression that the exercise of addressing surveillance has been considered in isolation and not with respect to the various outputs expected by other Articles of the Habitats Directive, nor how, with domestic legislation these join-up. This is important because surveillance is a starting point to help plan, carry out and monitor practical conservation achievements. An aspect of the NE 2011 report that illustrates this is a statement that knowing where GCN breeding sites are not important for surveillance and hence conservation purposes. This is a startling and contradictory statement, given that day to day decisions are needed by people on the ground in respect of habitat restoration and protection on the basis of understanding detailed distributions of populations at the landscape scale. Detailed patterns of regional and local distribution as opposed to vague overview are needed as the very starting point. The fundamental difference is species management

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systems that try to dictate downwards with insufficient resources and structures for implementation, from those that collectively build up from real data gathered at source; in this case the fate of identified pondscapes and pondways in the landscape. A rethink of the failed ‘top down’ policy and research approaches promoted by government and a heavily government-funded charity over the last 15 years is urgently overdue. The failed approaches may seem comfortable to their owners, set in their own languages, yet are flawed once translated. The approach taken by the NE report appears parochial as at it addresses rather general aspects of surveillance, aiming to provide a rough idea where species might be expected to occur which alone does not contribute that much beyond reference to pond density maps. That value is rather limited and can be achieved in other arguably better ways. It is insufficient to significantly inform the purpose of surveillance which is status review and to inform fulfilling the other Articles of the Habitats Directive. This is particularly important as the UK has ‘opted out’ of full (SSSI/SAC) site designation under the Habitats Directive as a means to protect GCN. It is no replacement for on the ground ‘blanket’ field survey and informed local strategies. It could be argued that any modelling approach on its own actually perpetuates continued declines by giving the appearance that something is being done or is about to be done yet delaying a start to the work that is needed to reverse the damaging and unlawful nature conservation trends. Finding a future for ponds Protection and conservation systems for GCN and its wetland and near-pond habitat is important as a way to help protect and restore the wide range of pond animal and plant communities that exist alongside them. There is urgent need to get pond conservation up and running in Suffolk and across the UK at meaningful levels. There is no discredit to those few who have worked hard to achieve with what little has been available but we must recognise that it is far too little to halt the declines. Key players must shift from stances that have been effectively long term denial. We have had the demonstration projects and some land owners can now gain payments under stewardship schemes. We need a strategic planning and information supply system to take forward pond protection properly, to deliver it locally via conservation professionals and volunteers working together with landowners. The diminution of the Nature Conservancy Council into English Nature and now Natural England parallels the decline of ponds and GCN. Any regional advisory system to drive nature conservation from a statutory point of view outside protected sites is severely limited. Nature conservation grants to farmers are generous but poorly focused and after payments paperwork and inspections there is little reporting on achievements nor feedback or fine tuning. The outlook contrasts starkly with the ambitions and requirements of the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy. With the 2010 UK targets for GCN pond creation and restoration in tatters, the 2020 targets remain an online reminder that for this species and its habitat, the national and international obligations remain more lip-service than reality. References

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Langton, T., Millins G., and Langton C. L. (2007). On the status of ponds and great crested newt Triturus cristatus in Suffolk. Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 43: 43–57. Langton T. E. S. (2009). Great crested newt Triturus cristatus: 30 years of implementation of International Wildlife Conventions, European and UK Law in the United Kingdom 1979–2009. A report to: European Commission. DG Environment. Oldham R. S., Keeble J, Swan M. J. S. & Jeffcote M. (2000). Evaluating the suitability of habitat for the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus). Herpetological Journal 10(4): 143–155. Wilkinson, J. W., Wright, D., Arnell, A. & Driver, B. (2011). Assessing population status of the great crested newt in Great Britain. Natural England Commissioned Reports, Number NECR080. Tom Langton Triton House, Bramfield, Halesworth, Suffolk IP19 9AE

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SUFFOLK PONDS AND GREAT CRESTED NEWT TRITURUS CRISTATUS CONSERVATION  

Tom Langton

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