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

A A A

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.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television The BBC have commissioned a series of programmes doing away with high-production values, commentary, script or drama
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable