Rocky the newt-seeking dog

Anglian Water employs a trained ‘newt sniffer dog’ to find protected newts before building works commence.

What does a water recycling centre, a cocker spaniel named Rocky and the protected Great Crested Newt have in common? Probably not much until Anglian Water decided to use an intriguing new method to record and protect the wildlife present at one of its sites.

Rocky, a trained ‘newt sniffing’ Conservation Dog was brought in by the water company in partnership with RPS Environmental Management Ltd ahead of some planned developments at their Water Recycling Centre in Chalton, Bedfordshire, to check the area around the site for the presence of the endangered species before building works commenced. Traditionally, the Great Crested Newts would be trapped and relocated using simple pitfall traps (buckets sunk into the ground) left overnight.

Aran Clyne, Rocky’s handler from specialist detection dog company Wagtail UK said: “The principle is the same as that of other sniffer dogs who detect drugs, money or other illicit items. Rocky is trained to detect the scent of the Great Crested Newt and alert me so we can capture it and move it safely out of harms way.”

“By surveying the ground systematically on a number of occasions Rocky’s keen nose can give additional reassurance to developers that they won’t be harming any wildlife while undertaking their work.”

The Great Crested Newt is a highly protected species under domestic and European Law due to their numbers falling markedly in recent years. It is illegal to disturb them or damage their habitats without an appropriate licence from Natural England.

Before any development work can start on a site where the newts are potentially present, developers must undertake survey work and, if the newts are found to be present, subsequently trap newts at the development site and relocate them to a safe, suitable habitat nearby.

Over the next year, plans are in place at the Chalton site to install a new treatment process. This will be the final stage in the water recycling process and used to filter treated water to ensure it’s of a high standard before it’s returned to the environment.

This new technology will replace eight filtration lagoons on the site, where the presence of Great Crested Newts was revealed earlier this year through environmental DNA testing of the water.

James Gilbert, Senior Ecologist said: “Not many people realise the variety of wildlife we find at some of our sites, particularly the larger treatment centres. As a good amount of land on site often remains relatively undisturbed, they can attract and support a host of different species, including some notable and protected ones like the Great Crested Newt. This is why we’re always working to find new, innovative and better ways of protecting them, in collaboration with specialist companies like Wagtail UK, when we need to undertake improvement works.

“Using conservation dogs like Rocky in this way is brand new to Anglian Water and we hope it will set a president for future projects. We’re committed to protecting the environment which is why we’re investing £5million between now and 2020 doing just that and, why projects like this are so important to us. We’re still using conventional newt survey methods, but Rocky gives us an enhanced approach.

“Also as part of the exercise, we’ll be creating two hibernacula – rubble and log piles capped with turf – for the newts to use as well as retaining the lagoons on site as important habitat for other local and county-wide wildlife, especially breeding and wintering birds”