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Insights Meet the world’s first scientifically proven newt detection dog

02 March 2020

A sniffer dog and a newt may not sound like a match made in heaven, but thanks to an Atkins-led project, that’s about to change…
image of a sniffer dog and a newt

Following extensive scientific testing over an 18-month period, we’re proud to announce that sniffer dog ‘Rocky’ has passed all his exams and is the first scientifically proven sniffer dog to detect great crested newts.

Due to their numbers falling markedly in recent years, great crested newts are a European protected species, and are the largest and most endangered of Britain’s three newt species. 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.

Rocky and his handler took part in a study to detect the rare newts, which we delivered on behalf of our client, hosted by Tarmac and working with Wagtail UK (a detection dog company) and Natural England. The project team is relocating great crested newts along the route of the new railway as part of its commitment to conserve, replace or enhance any wildlife habitats it affects. Our Ecology team worked with Wagtail UK to train Rocky and use his valuable skills to sniff out the rare and elusive newts so they could be re-homed, helping development to take place.

Why are great crested newts so hard to find?

The animals and their eggs, breeding sites and resting places are protected by law. However, finding and relocating this elusive species can be difficult, which can cause huge challenges for major infrastructure projects such as this one.

image of a sniffer dog sniffing shrubs and people watching

Our team developed rigorous testing method to determine whether dog/handler teams could reliably distinguish a great crested newt’s scent from other UK amphibians, and locate them in their natural environment. Without a trained sniffer dog, all suitable areas would have to be laboriously searched by hand. The use of a sniffer dog can mean larger areas of land are covered faster with greater accuracy, in a more cost effective and less invasive manner.

Rocky ‘indicates’ the presence of a great crested newt with a passive response, such as sitting/standing and staring to alert the handler of the presence of the great crested newt. He doesn’t touch the great crested newt in any way and has been trained to ignore common amphibians that are not protected in the same way.

The team used Crown Farm Quarry in Northwich, a Tarmac operated site, for the trial and testing. Members of our Ecology team were responsible for designing and running the research, and Tarmac helped to facilitate the work by setting aside trial areas and using their plant to transport materials used in the trials.

There were two parts to the testing: an initial controlled test to assess the ability of a dog to detect an unfamiliar great crested newt scent (i.e. not using the great crested newt the dog was trained on), and field trails to assess whether a dog can reliably locate individual great crested newts in habitat searches.

Aran Clyne, Rocky’s handler from 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 harm’s way."

Forward thinking

As a result of the pioneering research and field trials, Atkins has since obtained and implemented the first-ever Natural England great crested newt development licence that specifies the use of great crested newt detection dogs as the primary method of search and capture.

We’ve also obtained the first-ever Natural Resources Wales great crested newt development licence to use sniffer dogs to search for this protected species at one of the most significant regeneration projects in Wales, which also happens to have one of the largest great crested newt populations in the UK.

The skill and dedication a dog and handler team need in order to develop and maintain the animal’s ability is exceptionally high.  Atkins is part of a group with Natural England and others that are working to ensure these high standards are maintained. Our ecologists are also using detection dogs on a number of our projects to check habitats with potential for great crested newts (e.g. rubble piles, hedgerows and grassland) without the requirement for a Natural England or Natural Resources Wales development licence; this approach facilitates efficient and cost effective detection of great crested newts in lower risk areas.

image of four people and a sniffer dog

Kat Stanhope, Associate Director of Ecology, comments “As a collaborative team, Atkins, Tarmac and Wagtail UK have been extremely forward-thinking and have pioneered and driven the use of this technique which is set to change great crested newt mitigation in the industry as a whole; providing more favourable outcomes for both the newts and developers.

“Overall, it’s hoped that our testing and subsequent paper will result in the formation of standard methodologies and an accreditation system to ensure consistently high standards relating to the use of great crested newt detection dogs.”