Colony of protected newts to make way for town

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The Government's wildlife conservation watchdog faces legal action for striking a deal with a developer which will see the partial loss of the world's largest colony of great crested newts.

Half of an area of clay pits colonised by some 30,000 newts is to be covered in housing as the industrial conglomerate Hanson develops the largest private-sector town in Europe, south of Peterborough.

English Nature, which is based in Peterborough, yesterday defended its agreement with Hanson as the best possible deal for the newts, a legally protected species.

A nature reserve will be created where the habitat the newts need will be conserved and thousands of the amphibians will be caught and moved there from the area being destroyed.

The World Wide Fund for Nature was unimpressed and said it would begin a legal action in the European Union, alleging that English Nature was allowing the new EU habitats directive to be broken. ''It's hard to believe that the Government's own conservation watchdog can stand by whilst the largest colony in the UK of an endangered species is destroyed,'' said Carol Hatton, a WWF campaigner. ''We will do everything within our power to reverse this appalling decision.''

The newts have flourished in old clay pits. The huge size of the colony has only been appreciated now Hanson has secured planning permission for 5,200 homes, shops, schools, offices, factories and leisure facilities. The township will eventually provide homes for 13,000 people and jobs for 12,000.

English Nature has been negotiating to safeguard the maximum possible area of newt habitat. It has announced that 160 hectares will become a Site of Special Scientific Interest - a designation intended to protect important wildlife areas.

Half of this SSSI will, however, be built on and its area will then be redrawn in smaller boundaries. English Nature says it has signed a letter of intent with Hanson plc which will ensure this remaining area is managed to help the newts flourish.

James Hopkins, managing director of the Hanson subsidiary Peterborough Southern Township Ltd, said: ''We have not yet worked out how we will arrange this conservation management or how much it will cost us but we'll not skimp. It could be a seven-figure sum.''