Newt detection dogs on site at the Northern Arc

Arnie and Poppy on hand to assist Homes England

On one of the first really chilly mornings in October, there were some unusual visitors to the Northern Arc at the site of the new roundabout joining Jane Murray Way with the Northern Arc avenue. Their ecological expertise is astounding. Meet Arnie and Poppy – the newt detection dogs!

Arnie, one of Wagtail's newt detection dogs - Burgess Hill
Arnie, one of Wagtail's newt detection dogs

Arnie and Poppy live with Wagtail detection dogs – a centre in Wales where dogs are trained to detect all kinds of things, from tobacco to explosives, cash and even people. But a growing part of their business is in the lesser-known area of conservation and ecological surveying, and that’s where Arnie and Poppy come in.

Great crested newts are a protected species, and so their disturbance or destruction is illegal. They are amphibians, breeding in ponds during the spring and spending most of the rest of the year in woodland, hedgerows, marshes and tussocky grassland. They hibernate underground, among tree roots and in old walls. In tandem with more traditional surveying methods, Wagtail’s specially trained detection dogs can make the process of checking for great crested newts easier. If newts are found at a construction site, they must be carefully moved to a suitable habitat under the supervision of an ecologist with a license from Natural England.

Wagtail’s dogs are all rescue dogs – and they seek out the ones that are traditionally ‘too naughty’! This means they’re looking for working dogs with a really high level of energy and motivation – the perfect detection dog personality. Their astounding ability to detect great crested newts is down to their remarkable noses: dogs’ noses are 100,000 times more sensitive than humans’ – and they are able to smell in 3D and smell the passage of time! This is how tracking dogs are able to know in which direction their target has gone.

The newt dogs at Wagtail are carefully trained and tested to make sure the results of their surveys are reliable. This means they’re trained to discriminate – so they don’t give false positives for small mammals, frogs and toads, or even other species of newt. They are also trained to be non-invasive - if they do detect the presence of a great crested newt they step back and sit or lie down and will not interact in any way. Then the ecologist (always present with these surveys) can come to investigate the area the dog is indicating.

Poppy, another of Wagtail's newt detection dogs - Burgess Hill
Poppy takes a brief pause in between work on site

Arnie and Poppy clearly loved their work, wagging tails throughout the whole survey process. While they didn’t find any newts on this occasion (supporting the results of other survey work that has already been undertaken at this site) they were still rewarded for their efforts. Just not with their favourite toy - they only get that when they find a great crested newt!

Part of Homes England’s role at the Northern Arc is to make sure that supporting infrastructure is built at the right time for the project. This includes the creation of a brand new link road which will link the A2300 in the west with Isaacs Lane in the east. Jackson Civil Engineering are currently constructing the Western Link Road, which will join Jane Murray Way and the newly-dualled A2300 to the Northern Arc, helping to ensure that traffic flow is maintained as new residents move in over the coming years.