DEMONSTRATORS who hid in underground tunnels and tied themselves to trees in protest at a new open cast mine did so because they were afraid a small population of great crested newts would be destroyed by the development, they told a court yesterday.

The eight protesters who are facing trial for trespass also denied being members of Coal Action Network, a group which campaigns against coal mining, as they gave evidence at Teesside Magistrates Court yesterday (FRI).

From February this year demonstrators started building a network of underground tunnels, structures and tripods on Banks Group's open cast mining site near Consett to allow them to occupy the site, they said.

The protesters, who all deny the charges against them, chained themselves to tripods, tied themselves to wheelie bins filled with concrete, and scaled trees to occupy the site at Dipton, because they were attempting to stop a wildlife crime taking place, they said.

However the prosecution argued there was 'no evidence' that protected great crested newts were present on site.

Giving evidence, one of the defendants Luka Lecoutteux said she had been present when a fellow protester discovered a great crested newt in one of the traps laid out for it.

And another, Jessica Sankey, said in the witness box that she believed there needed to be a full investigation into the situation to prove there were no great crested newts on site.

But none of the accused had seen the newt actually fall into the trap, which the prosecution argued was not enough evidence.

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

Seven of the eight defendants face charges of obstructing and disrupting a person engaged in lawful activity. Ms Pearce is charged with aggravated trespass and resisting a police officer.

The trial continues.