Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Big ambitions for Britain's small ponds


Sometimes it dawns on you why you love your country, and I had one of those moments the other day in contemplating the fact that Britain has a full-time organisation devoted to the welfare of ponds. I may be wrong, but I simply cannot imagine that France or Germany or Italy, still less Albania, Paraguay or Ghana, has a charitable body, employing a full-time staff, which focuses entirely on the health of small bodies of standing water.

Rivers, sure; lakes, OK. The general aquatic environment, absolutely. But ponds, which non-pond-lovers might characterise as merely one step up from puddles, are surely far too trivial for anyone in the world to bother about in an organised way, except for the British, whose luminous, life-giving, virtually unique but barely recognised virtue is to care deeply about small things.

So while the rest of the world obsesses itself with great matters of state, or money, or football, or food, or sex, Oxford-based Pond Conservation, which began life as Pond Action – there's a stirring name for you! – and then was The Ponds Conservation Trust, resolutely sets about tackling the Million Ponds Project, which aims to restore the 470,000 ponds we now have in the countryside in Britain, to the million which existed a century ago.

I sympathise entirely. I cheer them on, having been drawn to ponds since I was a boy, for the simple reason that there is always (except in the worst cases) life in them, and it is usually fairly accessible. You might well see more aquatic wildlife living near a decent pond than you would living on the shores of Windermere, and this abundance and immediacy is the magic ingredient in one of the few bits of physical contact with the natural world that small children are allowed to perform today, which is pond-dipping.

Pond-dipping can be inspiring – I will never forget my young son's delight in fetching out a stickleback – but culturally, it tends to banish pond wildlife into a kiddies' ghetto, whereas in fact ponds are superlative wildlife reservoirs in general. Much of Britain's freshwater life can be found in them, from newts to dragonflies, from water snails to aquatic plants, from frogs to pond skaters (known in the US as "Jesus bugs" because they walk on water), and there are 71 endangered species on the UK's biodiversity action plan that rely on pond habitat for their survival.

These range from the tadpole shrimp, the world's oldest living species, going back 200 million years, to the recently reintroduced pool frog, the very rare fen orchid, and the wonderfully-named Ron's diving beetle. (Just to give you chapter and verse: Hydroporus necopinatus subsp roni is the English sub-species of a diving beetle also found in France and Spain. It was named after Ron Carr, an engineer from Maidstone, Kent, the treasurer of the Balfour-Browne Club, which is the learned society which devotes itself to the study of water beetles. We don't only care deeply about small things in Britain. We care deeply about very small things.)

But although ponds are terrific habitats for so many fascinating creatures, their general state in Britain is dire, according to the first-ever survey of their quality, which was published in February. The survey showed that about 80 per cent of ponds in the countryside were in "poor" or "very poor" condition, largely because their water was overloaded with nutrients from fertilisers used in intensive farming, and also the nitrogen deposition from vehicle exhausts. Furthermore, the first-ever survey of our three million or so garden ponds, published by Pond Conservation in June, showed their condition too left a lot to be desired, with more than half being only "moderate" or "poor" in water quality, although nearly all of them were supporting interesting wildlife.

"Ponds are just great wildlife habitats, with such a variety of things in them," said Pond Conservation's director, Jeremy Biggs. "At a landscape level, you can see three-quarters of all our freshwater life in ponds, more than in rivers and more than in lakes. About the only thing that doesn't do best in ponds is fish. A surprising quantity of birds make use of them and they are even havens now for freshwater crayfish." (Our native species, being threatened with extinction by an invasive species, the American signal crayfish).

And now Jeremy's band of enthusiasts is setting out, in its own words, "to reverse a century of pond loss" and over the coming years return our pond total to the million it once was (all with cleaner water, let it be said). Quite an ambition, eh? Chairman Mao might have told China to Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom! but the exhortation to Let A Million Ponds Cover The Countryside! is something you will find only in Britain.

A new suburban song

I am starting to hear a new voice in the suburbs – a long, continuous warbling chatter, with distinctive buzzing bits in the middle. It's the song of goldfinches. The flourishing of the goldfinch in our back gardens is a real bird-feeder success story, dependent, as many people know, on one particular attraction, nyjer seed.

This black, oil-rich seed from Guizotia abyssinica, a member of the daisy family originating in Ethiopia, proves irresistible to our most charming finch, and in our own suburban garden we've had seven on the feeder at once (and in the winter it brings in another cracking finch, the siskin).

Now I'm hearing goldfinch song every day, delivered from treetops or rooftops like that of blackbirds, song thrushes and robins. The buzzing bit is the giveaway. A new suburban sound in my bit of south-west London, to go with the screech of ring-necked parakeets.

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