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Experts from Cranfield University are helping to protect one of the UK’s rarest species of wildlife, by providing data that allows environmentalists to identify habitats in which it can thrive.

Due to a rapid decline in numbers during the last century, great crested newts are protected in law. This means developers wanting to build on land where they have made a home must wait until they have been relocated elsewhere before beginning work.

Previously, the relocation process was ad-hoc, and subject to seasonal restrictions, delays and uncertainty.

Data from Cranfield’s Land Information System (LandIS) is feeding into a new model that the University said promises to result in better outcomes for the species, as well as make developers’ lives easier.

Dr Jacqueline Hannam, senior research fellow in pedology within Cranfield’s Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Informatics, said:

“LandIS data on the soil properties of different areas will feed into a wider geospatial analysis and be combined with ecological knowledge gathered from observational surveys, enabling Natural England to create a map of Strategic Opportunity Areas that will guide wildlife trusts regarding placing or restoring compensation ponds.”

The great crested newt is the largest of the UK’s three native species of newt, growing up to 17cm long. Dark brown or black, with distinctive ‘warty’ skin and an orange underside with irregular black blotches, males of the species display an impressive jagged crest along their back in Spring and a white ‘flash’ in their tail.

Due to a rapid decline in numbers during the last century, the great crested newt is strictly protected in British and European law. It is illegal to kill, injure, capture, keep, sell or trade them, and to disturb, damage or destroy their habitat.

Under Natural England’s district level licensing (DLL), developers make a conservation payment based on the predicted impact of their development.

The money is used to fund the strategic creation or restoration of ponds in areas which are known to represent the best places for newts to thrive. The new habitats created will then be maintained and monitored for 25 years, all funded by the initial payment.

District Level Licensing is currently available across 91 local authorities in England, and Natural England has plans to expand this to 150 local authorities in the coming months. Going forwards, its ambition is to extend the licensing model across all aspects of its biodiversity work.

LandIS is designed to contain soil and soil-related information for England and Wales including spatial mapping of soils at a variety of scales, as well as corresponding soil property and agro-climatological data.

It is the largest system of its kind in Europe and is recognised by UK Government as the definitive source of national soils information.