The lowly pond fills up

All over Britain, ponds are being resurrected for their ecological

David Black is, as promised, waiting by the roadside. He is going to show me a woodland pond, a pond with a history. It was lost and forgotten. Overgrown completely. But now, as part of a pilot project under the auspices of a newly formed consortium called the Ponds Conservation Trust, it has been re-created.

Indeed, ponds all over Britain are now becoming a focus for active conservation and careful management. Many new ponds are being made each year. A survey for the government showed that, between 1990 and 1996, about 17,000 ponds were lost in lowland Britain, but another 15,000 were created.

Mr. Black leads the way down a gravel path into woodland. To our left, an area of running water is colonized by a big patch of yellow marsh marigolds, shining like lights between the tree trunks. To our right, a very small pond stands darkly under the heavy overhang of birch, sycamore, and hawthorn. "This one's a natural pond," says Black, who works for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. But this is not actually the pond I've come to see.

Walking on through these damp woods, it is hard to imagine they were once a hive of heavy industry. In the 18th century, this place was a cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the site of the Carron Dam Ironworks Company.

These ironworks were long-lived. They only gave up the ghost in the 1970s. Since then, the area, though besieged on all sides by new industry, house-building, school expansion, and the use of land for waste disposal, has become a nature reserve. It is literally an oasis. Its two ponds - we have now reached the second - play a particularly important role in providing a habitat for the kinds of flora and fauna specific to ponds. Further off, the remains of a large reservoir, lowered by breaching its dams, attracts its own varieties of wildlife.

This second pond is larger - about 40 yards by 25. Irregular in shape, it looks perfectly natural, too. But it isn't. Its earlier history goes back to 1870, when it was constructed as a pond for curling. On the map, it is still shown as a rectangle. Used by the Carron Curling Club regularly until the 1920s, it was finally abandoned about the time of World War II.

A few years ago, Graeme Morrison, the Scottish Wildlife Trust's regional manager, identified the silted and smothered site as the vanished curling pond. What followed was a model of sensitive rescue and remake, the strenuous work carried out, over some 1,300 hours by 33 volunteers. They cleared the accumulated silt and litter using barrows provided by a do-it-yourself company. The resulting pond is not, however, a curling pond again. It is an impressive attempt to mimic a pond formed by nature. An apt feature for a wildlife sanctuary.

Flora and fauna waste no time

Even quite new ponds like this one rapidly attract aquatic flora and fauna, beetles and water voles, frogs and toads, dragonflies, and damp-loving plants. Old or new, unpolluted ponds are often remarkably "species rich" and are today recognized as integral contributions to a healthy natural environment in a Britain intensively farmed and increasingly urbanized.

Jeremy Biggs, director of Pond Action, a national center for applied research on pond ecology and conservation in Oxford, stresses the importance of protecting "the biodiversity of the freshwater environment."

"Perhaps a little more deeply," he adds, "we know that if the plants and animals found in fresh water are still there in the future in the same diversity - if we maintain that situation - then we will be sure that water can go on providing the resources we need as well. You are much more able to use water for human activity if it has a rich biota in it than if it doesn't."

The Ponds Conservation Trust (and Pond Action is one of its 22 participating organizations) is part of a determined campaign to conserve and actively manage ponds all over the country.

Ancient fish ponds, for example, are attractive survivors from the country's heritage. So-called dew ponds found high in limestone or chalk country - made of puddled clay to provide drinking water for cattle - have long held a certain mystique for country lovers. And village ponds - sometimes originally for watering carriage horses and cattle - speak to a quintessentially English sense of small community life.

New ponds attract humans, too

This is probably why the idea of making a new pond at Mayford Village, near Woking in Surrey, attracted such strong local support. There had once been a pond on the green. But it had long been filled in. The village itself, some 1,000 households, has been recently divided by major road development.

Characteristic of the way ponds involve both wildlife and humans, this new pond not only attracted frogs and dragonflies, but its making brought together the inhabitants who had hardly known one another before.

A leading light in the project, Susie Punch, says, "It really joined the community together. It was such an oddball selection of people that came and helped, from 7 to 70. And everybody did it because they wanted to.

"We made the pond as natural as possible," Mrs. Punch says. Last summer about 80 species of pond life were found to be already living in it. "And somehow a carp got in. We've got a million and one tadpoles at the moment. Someone's seen a heron. A couple of mallards appeared the other day. (But we don't encourage them. They aren't house-trained.)"

Dr. Biggs would approve this attitude. His study of ponds has shown him how conventional human perceptions of what a pond should be, or ought to look like, have led to a number of myths and misconceptions. He points out that "you have to decide: Is it to be a place rich in wildlife, or a place where you feed the ducks? Hard to have those two in harmony really."

It is the same with garden ponds, which tend to be overstocked with fish and fed with tap water loaded with an excess of nutrients. These are not ideal wildlife habitats either.

Appearance is another problem. We like to see a sheet of water, with reflections. But "a pond completely smothered in plants is a fine habitat" Biggs asserts, even if it "just doesn't look so nice." Nor is shallowness, he says, an "obstacle to a pond being a good habitat." (The Scottish onetime curling pond is less than a foot deep.) "A few centimeters of water is where most aquatic plants and animals live."

No such thing as an 'undesirable' pond

The bid to halt the loss and degradation of British ponds is partly concerned with changing people's preconceptions. Ponds under trees, for instance, are often said to be undesirable. Not so. Ponds that dry up seasonally for large parts of the year need better press, too. They are often home to extremely rare species.

One persistent myth Biggs disputes is that all ponds naturally silt up until they cease to exist. Ponds change, certainly. They do become "seasonal after a while." But they continue to exist as wetlands.

"People think that natural ponds disappear naturally," he says, "but they don't. I've never seen a pond like that."

This means that the destruction of ponds is always brought about by human interference. Which is why there is such a burning need for human endeavor to right the wrong.

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