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Success for inaugural tour of Peters Village SSSI led by Kent Wildlife Trust expert

Contrary to what you may think, newts don’t need lots of water to swim around in.

In fact, it can be fatal - fish are then likely to thrive and feed off the newts.

This was just one of the fascinating insights given to those who joined the inaugural tour of the Peters Pit Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) one of the UK’s top 10 sites for conservation of the Great Crested Newt – the rarest of three newt species found in this country.

The location beside Peters Village earned its protected status in 2000 and is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT) with funding by Peters Village developer Trenport.

Apart from the newts it is also home to many other rarities including the Dormouse, Nightingale and various bats, orchids, solitary bees, and butterflies.

All are threatened by loss of habitat, so public access to the SSSI is understandably deterred, but KWT recognised the pride and interest shown by residents in and around Peters Village and has launched a series of occasional guided tours.

The inaugural tour was led by KWT’s Medway Valley Warden Steve Weeks (top picture - first left) who told the 15-strong party of visitors that the 29 hectare/71 acre SSSI might seem an unlikely nature reserve on what was once a major industrial site, the former Peters Lime & Cement Works, producing cement from locally quarried chalk.

Some 1,000 men worked there at its peak and it was served by a fleet of 80 Thames barges – possibly the world’s largest private fleet of its type at the time.

But the works’ lack of connection to the rail network caused a dramatic decline in the early 19th century and closure by the 1920s. After use as a military firing range, sundry light industries and various cross-country motorsports, the site was gradually reclaimed by Nature and boosted by the establishment of the SSSI.

Steve Weeks added that the purpose of the tour is not to track down and show the rare wild species there – there are penalties for those who do – but visitors did at least meet some other rarities: a flock of Hebridean Sheep.

Steve explained that the Hebrideans – looking more like small goats – are particularly useful for grazing conservation land and maintaining the balance of vegetation in the area of the SSSI where they roam:

“If we didn’t have them here for a while then the area would quickly turn to secondary woodland and change the habitat for the newts and other existing flora and fauna. They are also hardy little animals and don’t need much looking after.”

He added that the KWT has some 300 sheep and 60 Highland Cattle used to control habitats across its various sites.

After our woolly encounter, he then led the group to what appeared to be a scene of devastation: a cracked and dried area surrounded by scratchy trees and announced that this was one of the most important newt ponds in the SSSI.

He explained: “The key to success as a Great Crested Newt colony is the rise and fall of the water in the various ponds of the SSSI; the biggest threat to the newts is being eaten by fish, but fish cannot survive if the water dries up in summer.

“Newts emerge from hibernation in March, the males put on a mating display with their colourful crest and markings and the females produce the eggs. These are not like massed frog spawn, but laid individually and white, which the female tries to screen from the sun’s heat by using a leaf or other vegetation. The hatchlings resemble tadpoles but have feathery external gills.”

He added that while newts are not such prolific egg producers, they do at least live longer than their frog and toad cousins: a newt can live to 20 years in captivity and at least 10 in the wild.

Pointing to the pond trees, he said part of KWT’s management of the colony was to control those and other dominant vegetation near the ponds, to ensure that they don’t take too much water away during the newts’ breeding season or provide too much shade when the ponds need maximum sunlight to warm the water: “It is a real balancing act,” said Steve.

He also showed the visitors the newt fences or walls created to allow the newts into the colony but deter them from leaving. At the same time as this was installed, lizards and snakes from the Peters village development site were safely moved to specially prepared translocation sites .

It was clear by the end of the tour that everyone has learned far more than they expected, while sharing nuggets of information they had gleaned from their own local knowledge and connections.

Lucie Davis, has family roots in neighbouring Wouldham and recently returned to the area by buying a new home on Peters Village.

“This tour has been brilliant,” she said. “And I would really like to join another one so that I can see how it develops further and how the site might be during a different season.”

Peter Davey, who lives in Burham said: “It was really excellent to learn so much. I think everyone round here is very proud of the SSSI – now we know more about it.”

Why it’s important not to enter the SSSI

KWT’s Steve Weeks said: “Technically, the Peters Pit SSSI is off limits to the general public in the interests of conservation of rare species like the newts, but there has been unauthorised access by dog walkers and others so, short of erecting an unfeasibly high fence, we hope these guided tours will help spread the word about admiring their wonderful natural asset from afar in future. This approach has certainly worked at other sites we manage.

“People can also help to preserve the Peters Pit nature reserve by joining practical volunteer days with the warden – please use the contact details below.”

Trenport Director Chris Hall said: “The SSSI at Peters Village is a unique asset and one we are very proud of, but rather than go to draconian lengths to keep people out, we would rather encourage these tours to help publicise the need to respect this special open space, so that it continues to foster and maintain many rare species – with a helping hand.”

He added that such helping hands have included newt fences and tunnels introduced by Trenport under KWT’s direction, to help keep the Great Crested Newts from wandering into harm on local roads and tracks.

*The inaugural tour was held on Saturday 21 September, and if you would like to join one in the future please contact KWT Medway Valley Warden Steve Weeks at: stephen.weeks@kentwildlife.org.uk

Can’t wait for the next tour though? See some tips on how you can use your garden to help wildlife and conservation: https://petersvillage.co.uk/entry/an-invitation-to-go-wild-at-peters-village