RARE newts are being “parachuted” onto controversial development sites far from their natural habitats in a bid to influence planning disputes, it was claimed yesterday.
Millions of pounds have been spent providing alternative habitats for great crested newts and other protected species found on sites earmarked for construction.
But experts last night said the small amphibians were now actively being used as “weapons” in bitter planning tussles.
Scott Felton, a former water keeper of Colwyn Bay, helped a local residents’ association develop plans to turn the neglected Eirias Park lake into a fishery.
However, stocking the lake with fish has been put on hold after great crested newts, protected under the European Habitats Directive, were spotted there.
Mr Felton, who managed lake fisheries in Merseyside, claimed the newts may have been introduced by someone who objected either to angling or to an alternative proposal to drain the lake and build on its site. He said the newts’ nearest known breeding site was four miles away, past urban streets.
“You’re talking about newts not only travelling that distance, but travelling in sufficient numbers to create a viable population,” said Mr Felton, whose father was a zoologist. “Everything is wrong about the habitat in Eirias Park. These newts colonise ponds like the Polynesians colonised the Pacific by island hopping.”
Great crested newts would have to run a gauntlet of predators to reach their new North Wales home. “There are places where they can get out of the lake at Eirias Park, but they’d have to cross hundreds of yards of mown grass to get to the nearest cover. If a gull saw one it would eat it straight away. The place is overrun with rats, which eat newts and frogs.
“Great crested newts lay their eggs singly and fold a leaf around the egg for protection. They have to have the right sort of weed in the pond. As far as I’m aware, that sort of weed isn’t found in Eirias Park lake. I think these newts have been put there.
“I would love to see great crested newts all over the place. They’re an important part of the wildlife of this country, but they shouldn’t be used as weapons.
“It’s amazing how these animals are so scarce yet they inevitably appear where people are objecting to development. I’m sure that in some cases they’re being moved, which isn’t ethical.”
His claims were echoed by a Welsh property developer who claimed great crested newts were now appearing wherever his company planned to build. The developer, who did not want to be named, said, “We do have suspicions. We put two and two together. We’re seen as the big bad developers. It’s getting more difficult. The newts appear to be everywhere.”
The appearance of newts can spell huge losses to developers. This month Cheshire councillors wrote to the Government questioning habitat rules after their council spent £60,000 rehousing four great crested newts. Last month Leicestershire council announced a three-month delay to a £15m road scheme while great crested newts are moved, at a cost of up to £1.7m. And 26 new homes in Trefnant, Denbighshire, were delayed six months while a £140,000 habitat was created for two great crested newts.
But seasoned anti-roads campaigner Rebecca Lush Blum said, “This is a typical smear tactic by developers. Environmentalists wouldn’t dream of moving and potentially endangering a protected species.”
The Countryside Council for Wales was not aware of great crested newts in Eirias Park. Species officer Matthew Ellis said, “However, the presence of the newts may not necessarily prevent the use of this pond for fishing purposes. CCW would be happy to work with those involved to discuss a constructive way ahead.”