Teaching a talented dog newt tricks

Freya the newt detection dog is protecting the precious amphibians from harm and habitat loss - and now she has an expert partner on paw patrol.

What do they do?

Springer spaniel Freya, owned and trained by Wessex Water ecologist Nikki Glover, first made headlines in 2018 when her skills were deployed to sniff out great crested newts before work started on water and sewerage schemes.

New research by Nikki has shown that Freya can detect newts from a distance of up to two metres away and 20cm below ground, while springer-cocker spaniel Newky has stepped up to join the team and is proving equally successful in trials.

Newky detecting a newt

What are the benefits?

As well as the conservation benefits, Freya and Newky are minimising costly delays to building projects by spotting the protected species much quicker than humans using traditional trapping methods.

Nikki explained: “The dogs have massively reduced the amount of time and tools required to relocate newts – we haven’t used a pitfall trap (buckets sunk into the ground) on a Wessex Water scheme since 2021, so we’re saving on plastic and other materials as well.

“Natural England have accepted the dogs as a non-invasive method since I completed my research. Freya and Newky love what they do and they are reducing average construction times by a third.

“They have also saved countless newts from being killed or injured during works due their ability to detect them above and below ground, as well as in obscured structures.”

How do they do it?

When Freya or Newky locate a great crested newt, they signal by lying or sitting down. The nocturnal creatures are often found seeking refuge in stone walls, log piles or cracks in the ground during the day.

A PhD student at Salford University, Nikki challenged Freya to identify newts at a range of channelled distances through pipes and in both sandy and clay soil.

The pioneering study also showed that Freya could tell the species apart from other creatures, such as frogs and other newts.

Niki and Freya on the search for newts

What's next?

It is all in a day’s work for Nikki, who has just started training a third dog named Obi after receiving his licence from Natural England.

She 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.”

Learn more about our environmental screening process, which we use to investigate any potential impacts on the environment, wildlife and archaeology before a building project begins.