In the UK, the great crested newt is protected under European law. The species is quite widespread across the UK. It is illegal to harm them or damage their habitat. This presents a problem to building developers in planning applications. They have to apply for a licence before they can catch the animals or handle them. If they don’t it’ll be a crime. And despite best efforts it’s possible to miss them which can lead to the great crested newt being killed or injured during construction.
The problem is that it is very hard, using conventional techniques, to find them. There are no easy detection methods which has created a challenge for the construction industry, researchers and ecologists alike.
Nikki Glover a PhD student at Salford University is a very smart woman! She appears to have detected an opportunity to help rectify these difficulties in using trained dogs with their powerful sense of smell to find them even when they are 20 cm underground. This is another remarkable story of the efficiency and astounding ability of dogs to detect smells under the most difficult of conditions and use that ability to save lives and actually make more money (for the developers).
Nikki Glover wanted to see whether they could find the creatures when hidden from view. The great crested Newt reproduces in ponds in spring. They move from the ponds during the summer months. On land they shelter in various locations including underground in burrows.
She was able to train Freya, the dog you see in the picture, to detect this particular species of newt after six months. She can find them when they are below ground and she can tell them apart from other creatures such as other species of newts and frogs.
When she finds a great crested newt, she lies down and waits. Freya is a spaniel. They also carried out trials with a Springer-cocker spaniel named Newky with similar results.
Nikki Glover said:
“Since utilising dogs to detect great crested newts in the wild, I have learnt an incredible amount about their terrestrial ecology which will hopefully shape habitat management practices and mitigation measures. The detection dogs have saved a countless number of newts from being killed or injured during construction works due to their ability to detect them above and below ground, as well as in obscured structures. In addition to this, the use of detection dogs has saved the company time and money and limited plastic waste such as resulting from the use of traps.”
Dr. Robert Jehle, of Salford University as well, and a co-author of the study, estimated that the dogs can find newts 3 to 4 times faster than the best human experts.
The report is on the PLOS One website.