An energy company has revealed newts have been found near the site of a proposed exploratory borehole at the centre of a huge community campaign.
Anti-fracking councillor Matt Bryan and Chester Zoo raised concerns after it appeared IGas and planning authority Cheshire West and Chester Council were relying on a six-year-old newt survey at the Duttons Lane site in Upton.
The 2009 survey showed no evidence of the great crested newt, a species which is protected by law.
However, in a statement IGas has now revealed a survey was carried out earlier this year which did show the presence of newts close to the site although the firm is unwilling to clarify whether they are the great crested variety.
The company said precautionary measures would be put in place before any work starts at the site, where a protest camp is due to be evicted any time from Friday onwards.
Spokesman David Petrie said: “IGas, as a responsible operator, conducted a comprehensive newt survey earlier this year which showed evidence of newts in close proximity to the site. As is normal, mitigation measures will be put in place before any development on the site takes place.”
Mr Petrie said ‘no decision’ had yet been taken over whether the eviction notice relating to the protest camp would be enforced.
Cllr Bryan, who represents Upton on CWaC, claims the existence of the newt survey only became apparent on Friday and asks why this information was not shared with CWaC earlier. He also wants to know why IGas had sought to conduct seismic testing on the land if great crested newts were present. In the event, activists from the protest camp and residents held a blockade to prevent the work going ahead.
Cllr Bryan, who joined an anti-fracking demonstration in Upton on Saturday along with council leader Samantha Dixon, is hoping to obtain a copy of the ecological report. He said: “As ward councillor I take a dim view that they just sat on this important information.”
Since the 1940s, populations of great crested newts have declined in most of Europe due to loss of habitat. In England, Wales, and Scotland, it is a protected species under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is also a European Protected Species and as such has additional protection in the UK.
In addition, Cllr Bryan claims a recent High Court ruling shows CWaC should have treated planning applications relating to mineral extraction like the one in Duttons Lane as ‘major applications’. As such, the applications should not have been decided by individual officers under delegated powers but should have been determined by the council’s strategic planning committee. He said: “Significant questions need, therefore, to be answered as to the legality of these decisions.”
But CWaC strategic director Charlie Seward responded: “The council is content that all planning applications in relation to exploratory minerals extraction have been determined in accordance with law, national guidance and the council’s constitution.”
Cheshire West and Cheshire Council media relations spokeswoman Shirley Wingfield said: "The council wrote to the developer on Friday to remind them of their statutory duties in connection with European Protected Species.
"The council were informed by the developer that they had carried out a comprehensive newt survey earlier in the year. Evidence of newt activity in close proximity to the site was found.
"The developer therefore confirmed that before any development is undertaken a European Protected Species license will be sought from Natural England for the implementation of a detailed mitigation scheme. The council have requested a copy of the survey."
■ Chester Zoo managing director Jamie Christon wrote to CWaC before it became apparent a recent newt survey had been carried out.
A zoo spokesperson said: “Chester Zoo are aware that there is a possibility of great crested newts (Triturus Cristatus), a European Protected Species, being present on the land on Duttons Lane. As a major conservation charity we have written to Cheshire West and Chester Council requesting that a great crested newts survey takes place before any development occurs.”