Relocation, habitat creation, management and monitoring for newts is strictly controlled through a licensing system maintained by Natural England. No such system exists for the more widespread reptile species. But evidence is emerging which shows that all these reptiles – particularly the adder – would benefit from legal protection of their habitat. Your article yesterday, on the population slump of Britain's only venomous snake, reinforced this
Published last year but still of interest. Perhaps mitigation work for widespread reptiles should be more rigorously reviewed by Local Planning Authorities. However, if the Standing Advice linked to previously is anything to go by, bucketing reptiles across the countryside is likely to remain the default mitigation action deployed by ecological consultants.
One of the commentors at the bottom of the linked article makes the very valid point that the emphasis should be on habitat conservation, and not relocation. Of course preserving existing habitat can be important in many situations (particularly when the habitat is rare and/or takes many years to reach maturity). But conserving habitat may include protecting or creating new habitat at other less threatened locations (i.e. habitat compensation or offsetting), whilst allowing some areas to disappear. After all, natural systems are dynamic and habitats can and do change over time.
Defining reptile habitat is problematic. The adder seen basking on my client's development site may actually hunt and hibernate elsewhere. How do we implement habitat conservation if we don't fully understand the habitat that is utilised by a species (in terms of type, quality and area)?
Amphibians (including newts) are easy. They breed in landscape features that are easy to identify - ponds.
KRAG has undertaken work to create a tool that determines priority areas for great crested newt pond creation.
The KRAG tool attempts to determine the ecological value of a pond in terms of whether it will reinforce an existing population or help to expand range. Creating new ponds in areas of poor terrestrial habitat isn't necessarily a priority, but nor is creating ponds in areas that already include many existing ponds. Whilst the KRAG work represents a conservation project designed to promote new pond creation, a similar approach may well be justified for development based projects.
Since the translocation of newts is now restricted due to the risk of chytrid, allowing some populations to be lost may soon be considered acceptable, providing that new ponds are created elsewhere to allow the targeted reinforcement, expansion or establishment of new populations. In light of the government's upcoming review of the Habitat Regs, this may even be considered a cost effective solution for many developers.
Similar approaches may also be achievable for other species, including reptiles. But we need a much better understanding of what habitat is utilised and how the quality of available habitat influences occupancy and dispersal. We need something akin to the great crested newt habitat suitability index, but for reptiles.
For adder, perhaps we could start with identifying topographical features with a well understood usage - think hole in the ground (aka hibernaculum). Adder hibernacula are critical landscape features, yet a definition that can be used to reliably identify a hibernaculum in the field remains elusive. Certainly, this is something that I will be giving some thought to over the coming season. A field observation of an animal at the right time of year is surely a good start and something that we can illustrate through the collection of records.
Understanding where species occur is critical to their conservation. You can contribute to this by submitting your observations to your local recording scheme. In Kent, records can be submitted to KRAG. Elsewhere in the country, records of amphibians and reptiles can be submitted either to your local ARG or to ARG UK through the Recording Pool.