PROTESTORS who have set up a camp to prevent the creation of an opencast coalmine claim they have found a great crested newt on the site.

Environmental activists at the Pont Valley Protection Camp, near Leadgate, Consett, in County Durham, said the discovery of the protected species was made on Tuesday.

Banks Group, which is due to start work on the Bradley site, has said newt surveys were undertaken by a licensed ecologist last summer and no newts were found.

But campaigners claim the firm will not show them the report to back this up, and argue the firm will now need a licence from Natural England before starting work.

Camp member Anne Harris said: “The find clearly shows that there is an endangered species whose habitat would be destroyed and animals would be killed if an opencast were to happen here.

“A current and full newt survey and updated license are required before any more work can go ahead, or Banks Group will be committing a wildlife crime.

“The Pont Valley Protection Camp vows that it will stop the destruction of the newt pond and surrounding area.”

The application to opencast at the Bradley site was applied for by UK Coal, a now defunct mining company, before it was taken over by the Banks Group.

Ms Harris said UK Coal carried out newt surveys in 2007, 2011 and 2014, all of which found great crested and smooth newts, and built four new ponds just off the site as they had expected to relocate them.

She said: “For two months we have been asking to see the elusive survey from Banks as we had concerns about the accuracy of its findings.

“There has been evidence of great crested newts on this site for at least the last thirty years.

“Capturing a great crested newt shows we have good reason to not trust Banks.”

The protestors are hoping to prevent Banks Group from starting work on the land before planning permission runs out on the June 3.

The company’s community relations manager, Lewis Stokes, said: “Extensive surveys of the natural environment are carried out by independent ecologists as part of the development of all Banks Group sites, so that an accurate picture of any resident species and habitats can be formed and factored into our site development, management and restoration plans.

"In the case of the Bradley site, a range of ecological surveys have been carried out over a number of years across all different aspects of the local environment.

"These included extensive surveys of all ponds on the site over 2017, using Environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling and terrestrial refuge assessment, which found no evidence of any great crested newts.

"The operations planned at the Bradley site have thoroughly considered all environmental matters including ongoing checking surveys by independent ecologists.

“This project will create multiple new habitats for newts and other species and enhancements to the footpath network providing improved interaction with the natural environment and delivering benefits for both wildlife and people living in local communities many decades into the future."