Britain’s ponds to double to 1 million

Juliette Jowit
Friday 6 February 2009 by anik

Charity to restore ponds to pre-industrial levels, protecting threatened species and helping them to survive global warming

eremy Biggs stomps through the ice, plunges his net in and shakes it vigorously in the chill water, churning up silt, broken reeds and shards of frozen pond.

He tips the debris into a white tray and everybody gathers around. At first the melee looks simply dirty, then tiny flecks begin to dart and squiggle, and minute legs and tissue-thin wings start to show. Biggs, Pond Conservation’s director of policy and research, identifies whirligig beetles, the pea-sized curl of a keeled ramshorn snail, a louse-like water slater, mayflies, freshwater shrimp, water-beetles, and a lentil-sized pea muscle.

This artificially created small patch of water by a kink of the Thames near Oxford is now one of the richest ponds in the country, says Biggs. It is home to one-fifth of pond species in Britain, and new plants, insects, crustaceans, amphibians and other animals turn up every season. So successful has the Pinkhill site been that it is to become a model for an ambitious plan to double the number of ponds in England and Wales from 500,000 to 1m. Ponds have long been the poor relation of freshwater - dipped in by children, but largely ignored by grown-ups and scientists. Partly as a result, maps and government surveys suggest that in the last 150 years the number of ponds in Britain has halved. Of those that have survived, eight out of 10 are now damaged by falling water tables, pollution running off farmland, roads and urban areas, and invasion by alien species.

Charles Darwin speculated that all life might have started in a "warm little pond", and experts now estimate two-thirds of all freshwater species live in these little pools. At the same time, more threatened freshwater species in Britain live in ponds than in rivers or lakes, and globally the international conservation body (IUCN) has warned freshwater biodiversity is "extremely threatened ... possibly more so than other systems".

The Million Ponds Project, to be launched next month, aims to restore the number of ponds back to pre-industrial, pre-intensive agriculture levels. It also wants to improve water quality to protect the most threatened species and create more robust habitats to survive the stresses of global warming. Research from the US also suggests the world’s 290m ponds absorb more carbon than the oceans.

Biggs says: "They are wonderful, full of life. They are a place you can get close to nature. They are mysteries because you don’t know what you are going to find. A lot are aesthetically pleasing as well: the view over water, there’s something deep about that."

Pond Conservation designed and dug out 40 ponds at Pinkhill next to the Farmoor reservoir in the early 1990s. The pools range in size from a metre squared - the smallest a pond can be before it becomes a puddle - up to a third of a hectare, and are fed by rain and groundwater, or a mixture. No soils or sediments were added, and the only plants brought in were willow and reeds to screen the perimeter. Now they are home to 85 species of wetland plants and 165 different invertebrates, including many less common species. The incomers have travelled over land from the river and reservoir, on the wind, and with birds. In spring, little ringed plover, terns, newts and toads will appear among the feathery common reeds, spiky hawthorn and rushes.

Biggs says they were helped by natural wetland habitat already on the site, but mostly attributes their success to design ideas pioneered by the charity: in particular, good ponds need clean water, preferably not from rivers or streams which are mostly polluted; are ideally close to other wetland habitats so new species can colonise easily; and offer a variety of water types, soils, plants, and habitats. Among the most important features are gradually sloping shores, because half of all freshwater species live in the "draw-down" zone between the winter high-water mark and summer low-water mark, says Biggs.

"This [Pinkhill] is the spiritual home of the project, where we tried out all these things," he says. The Million Pond campaign is a 50-year project, but the charity has raised £3m for the first 5,000 new ponds in the next three years,., including a large grant from the Tubney Charitable Trust. It will advise partners who will do the digging, including wildlife charities, the Environment Agency, and the Ministry of Justice and the Defence Estates, which want to put ponds in at prisons, firing ranges and training grounds.

In spring it will also launch a Garden Pond campaign to expand on the already 2m more ponds kept by home owners, although these cannot count towards the 1m target if they are in the boundaries of private properties.

"People should see the changes in five to 10 years," says Biggs. "They should see places where there are good ponds, that should be noticeable ... or we won’t have succeeded."

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