If 30,000 newts could vote, John Major would be out

Ken Livingstone detects Tory party machinations behind the threat to a colony of rare amphibians in the Prime Minister's constituency
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The great crested newt is to the British pond what the tiger is to the Indian jungle. After 40 years I can still remember the sense of awe and wonder when I saw my first great crested newt.

I had caught many of the small brown common newts in my local parks, but even in those days the great crested newt was already extinct in inner London. I stood transfixed in my local pet shop as I watched this beautiful underwater predator stalk and consume the worms the pet shop owner lovingly dropped in front of it.

The greater crested newt is the largest and rarest of our newts - a beautiful, black-backed, orange-bellied miniature dragon with a jagged crest that runs its full six-inch length.

Over the past 100 years, 90 per cent of the ponds in which these magnificent amphibians used to live have been filled in and built upon. Many of the ponds that remain are so saturated with fertilisers from local farms that the newts can no longer live in them. Across Europe, the greater crested newt is the most endangered amphibian left. In most of the rest of Europe, acid rain has decimated it even more extensively than here in Britain.

This is a tragedy. To sit on the edge of a pond and watch the gentle courtship of the greater crested newt is still one of the most wonderful moments for any nature watcher. The male floats almost without moving in front of the female and then goes through an elaborate courtship dance, waving his tail with its silver stripe to attract the female. She slowly and carefully lays each egg underneath the leaf of an underwater plant and then folds the leaf over in order to hide it. The thought that one day children will no longer be able to watch this beautiful display leaves me feeling very sad and depressed.

Amazingly, the survival of this beautiful newt is now tied up with the survival of John Major. Lo and behold, the largest colony of these newts that has ever been recorded has been discovered in the Prime Minister's constituency of Huntingdon. Thirty thousand greater crested newts have taken over the disused Orton brick pits.

You might think that John Major would immediately rush to be photographed preserving and protecting this newt colony. I should imagine that he would have been happy to do so, were it not for the fact that Lord Hanson, the second largest contributor to Conservative party funds, stands to lose pounds 30m if he is not allowed to go ahead and fill the ponds in to build 5,000 homes.

Not all of the site is in John Major's constituency - half of it overlaps into the constituency of Brian Mawhinney, who has just been appointed chairman of the Conservative Party. We know that Dr Mawhinney has paid a visit to English Nature, the body whose job it is to preserve any site with an endangered species living on it.

Of course, the meeting was private, so we can only speculate on how strongly the chairman of the Conservative Party lobbied in favour of the greater crested newt and against the financial interests of Lord Hanson. Sadly, Dr Mawhinney has not been successful. English Nature has just announced a "deal" with the Hanson Trust.

Under this deal, the newts will be moved to a neighbouring site and Lord Hanson will then be able to build his homes.

It is surprising that it has taken this long for English Nature to act. It was informed of the need for this site to be protected way back in 1990, and in normal circumstances the site would have been protected three or four years ago.

English Nature's Ian Dair has said: "The main thing is to protect the newts, not the habitat." I can imagine what English Nature's council would have to say if there were a proposal to remove golden eagles from their habitat.

The sad truth is that most of the greater crested newts will be guided by their homing instinct back to the original site, where they will be crushed to death in their thousands under the wheels of Lord Hanson's bulldozers.

One can only speculate as to why English Nature has not been prepared to stand up to Lord Hanson. Perhaps Trevor Beebee of the British Herpetological Society was right when he said: "If English Nature digs its heels in on this site, one can imagine the comeback for them if the Tories were re- elected."