ARC’s Connecting the Dragons Project Officer, Peter Hill explains why the teams work to manage, restore and create breeding ponds for great crested newts is so important

The habitat management season is progressing well and the team have been busy managing, restoring and creating breeding ponds for great crested newts.  Many existing ponds are of low value for newts to breed within, most often due to encroaching tree growth which can cause a pond to become increasingly unsuitable over time.

As tree growth encroaches into pond space, two things happen.  Firstly, when in leaf, tree incursion shades the pond, keeping the sun’s rays off the pond.  In order to develop fully right through to metamorphosis, amphibian larvae need the warmer temperatures that a pond in receipt of full sunlight provides, rather than the low levels of light and cooler water temperatures that heavy shading causes.  If left unmanaged, ponds can become totally shaded and hence completely unfit for amphibians, and also many invertebrate and other aquatic species.

Secondly, during the autumn, leaves are shed into the pond.  An excessively high volume of leaves decomposing within a pond can cause toxic conditions, or eutrophication. Wales no longer has a natural functioning mechanism such as the activity of beavers to manage tree incursion around ponds, so without suitably-timed intervention, ponds become degraded over time until species such as great crested newts can no longer use them.

In the absence of beavers, chainsaws and brush-cutters do the job instead, but its not just about managing and restoring ponds.   Historically, changes in agriculture resulted in many ponds being lost from the UK countryside, and existing remaining ponds are often isolated.  Animals such as newts need ponds to be no more than 1km apart from the next pond, ideally closer.  Without good pond connectivity in place, isolated colonies of newts can become weaker due to a lack of genetic diversity, i.e. inbreeding.

So, as well as managing and restoring ponds by removing shading trees and desilting areas of ponds that were previously heavily shaded, the team also creates new ponds at strategic locations. As well as increasing the amount of breeding habitat accessible to newts, carefully located new ponds also plug the missing gaps of connectivity between ponds.  Newt populations respond well to clusters of ponds in relative proximity being made accessible rather than a single pond at great distance from the next.  So as well as chainsaws and brush-cutters, mechanical excavators on caterpillar tracks are another necessary tool.

Of course, dealing with regenerative tree incursion to increase light levels results in several large piles of logs, roots and brash.   This can be useful to create hibernacula, a large mound of roots, logs, branches and brash will provide ideal land-based habitat for newts to shelter within during their time on land, including hibernation.  Top soil produced from pond excavation is used to dress the mound of logs and brash, and instantly a pond-side 5-star hotel is created for newts.  The important thing to remember is not to use willow to create a newt hotel, as willow is incredibly resilient and will just sprout and grow, causing shading once again.  When the team has willow to deal with, we either make a brash pile at a location away from the pond where regeneration will not cause shading, or if a chipper is available, willow can be chipped. 

Of course, as great crested newts are a protected species, all of the work undertaken by the team has to be licensed.  A detailed method statement is also prepared, detailing the measures taken to avoid harming any newts or other wildlife in the process.  All the work undertaken must adhere to the method statement.  It’s quite a lot of work in total, but seeing the new ponds full of water makes it all worth it!  Right now, the ponds are raw and muddy, and the work can look fairly drastic, but as spring arrives, plants and animals will colonize the new habitats surprisingly quickly.  Where there is now exposed mud, the seedbank will erupt and sprout into a carpet of green. In a year from now, the ponds will look very different.  In two years’ time, they will look as if they have always been there.

The team is looking forward to the arrival of Spring, and the opportunity to survey some one-year-old and two-year-old ponds to see what is using them. We will keep you updated with progress in the coming months!

We have also teamed up with Plantlife's Magnificent Meadows Cymru project to run a online webinar series all about how amphibians and reptiles use meadows and grasslands, and how to manage your mini-meadows and farms for them. Visit the to find out more and book.

 If you'd like to read more about ARC’s Connecting the Dragon project and how to get involved visit the project page.

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