PROTESTERS accused of trespassing on the the site of an opencast mine in order to protect great crested newts have been told there was “no evidence” such creatures were present.

Tobias Munnion, Luka Lecoutteux, Eleanor Ransom, Sophie Pearce, Jessica Sankey, Sarah Johnson, Sam Fawcett and Ruth Hayward are all accused of trespassing on the Banks’ opencast site, near Consett, in April.

The defendants accept they were trespassing, but have argued their actions were justified because they were protecting newts which they allege were on the site.

One of the protesters approached police on April 19 to say a newt had been caught on the site two days before.

However, Community Inspector James Wardle told Teesside Magistrates Court yesterday no such creatures were discovered in various searches and investigations.

“Following extensive tests and site searches, there was no evidence of great crested newts,” he said.

“No one could provide an image with a date and time, there is no camera picture with a date and time, there is no phone picture with a date and time.

“The only image we had was a photocopy of a screenshot from social media.”

Neil Connell, mitigating, criticised the police’s approach to the alleged discovery, saying: “At best your approach was lackadaisical, at worst you did not take the allegations seriously at all.”

But Insp Wardle said he “strongly disagreed”.

“The crime was recorded and investigated – that is enough to show it was taken seriously.”

Mining group Banks has permission to extract about half a million tonnes of coal in the area and was aiming to complete preparatory work.

Jill Lomax, development planner at Banks, said 27 newts were found on the site in 2007, compared with three in 2011 and four in 2014, but Natural England were “satisfied” with the studies carried out in 2018, which found no newts present.

But Mr Connell said Banks had been “reckless” in reaching that conclusion and starting work on the site,

“It is not about finding newts, it is about establishing they are no longer there.

“Failing to catch any doesn’t mean you can conclude there aren’t any newts.”

But Mrs Lomax said: “It was entirely appropriate. We had planning permission and our surveys showed newts were no longer a constraint to development.”

Seven of the eight defendants, all aged between 21 and 44, face charges of obstructing and disrupting a person engaged in a lawful activity.

Ms Peace is charged with aggravated trespass and resisting a police officer.

The trial continues.