Ponds are one of the most important wet features you can have on the farm.
A vast array of wildlife will gravitate towards a good quality farm pond. Permanent ponds hold water all year round, providing permanent habitat for a range of wildlife as well as a many occasional or periodic visitors.
Ponds can be a forgotten or neglected part of the farm, and often overlooked in favour of other environmental options. A huge variety of wildlife relies on ponds having three key features: clean water, shallow margins and good plant life. The sheer diversity of species which use and live in ponds makes them an exciting and essential part of the landscape.
Healthy ponds can support a huge number of marginal and aquatic plants, including once common plants like marsh marigold and water crowfoot. Aquatic invertebrates can thrive in ponds, including dragonflies whose larvae are dependent on ponds. Beneficial insects such as bees will drink from ponds while many hoverflies, one of our key wild pollinators, need water to complete their lifecycle. Amphibians rely on ponds for breeding, and grass snakes are strongly associated with ponds (and other wetlands), as they prey on amphibians. Birds and mammals in arable areas often rely on ponds for their drinking water.
Ponds (other than temporary ponds or scrapes) may dry out periodically, or in drought years. This characteristic helps to eradicate fish, if they have been introduced.
Having a number of connected ponds on the farm is of great value for wildlife, providing additional habitat and facilitating species movement through the landscape. This is especially beneficial where the ponds are of different ages and character, and therefore provide different conditions, which are therefore suitable for a greater diversity of plants and animals than a single pond.
It is also useful to take stock of how many ponds you have on your farm, what condition they are in (open, shaded, drying out), and what species they support, as this will help you decide whether pond management or creation is the best approach (or a combination of both).
The protection of ponds, and where appropriate, the management and creation of ponds is incredibly important. One of the key parts of this is appropriate buffering of the ponds to protect them from run-off and pollutants.
The habitat immediately surrounding ponds is especially important, and with minimal effort can provide key areas for feeding and shelter for amphibians, such as in the form of rough grassland. Log or stone piles close to the ponds can be valuable features for a wide range of wildlife. Ponds should be connected to other important habitat on the farm and the wider environment. Hedgerows and buffer strips can be important in enabling species to move between habitats, including other ponds, woodland, scrub and tussocky grassland to find areas to feed, migrate, take refuge and hibernate.
Clean water is a vital part of a healthy pond – many of the species that rely on ponds cannot survive in very nutrient rich or polluted water. Buffering ponds in arable areas is therefore essential, and ideally the buffer around an arable pond should be at least 12m wide. If the ponds on your farm have historically been used for cleaning water through silt collection, it is worth considering creating a new pond complex for wildlife and keeping any settling ponds for that purpose. The best place to site ponds is in permanent pasture, however a wide buffer strip planted up with a mixture of robust grasses will mimic this habitat, providing the grassy margins that benefit amphibians as they migrate to and from water bodies and terrestrial habitat.
The best ponds are often those in full sun, with shallow margins and a varied topography under the surface. These provide the widest variety of marginal and aquatic plant life. Wide (about 50-60cm wide) and shallow margins (about 5-15cm deep), with a shelved profile into a central deeper well area of about 1.5m will provide the most benefit for wildlife. By providing a complex of smaller ponds, as opposed to one big pond, you add additional value as each pond can be slightly different to cater for a wider range of species. Several ponds in a complex provides a greater number of opportunities for species to find the conditions they require, particularly in a changing environment, such as ponds drying out over a dry summer.
When creating a new pond the temptation is to plant it up, however natural regeneration is by far the easiest way to develop pond wildlife, not only that, stocking ponds increases the chances of bringing in invasive non-native (pest) plants and animals.
Surface invertebrates like pond skaters, whirligig beetles and water boatmen will usually find a pond within a few weeks, with marginal and aquatic plants arriving in a few months. It can take up to a year, but at the end of that time the new pond will look very much like it has been there all along. It is important not to introduce fish and wildfowl to ponds, as this will have an impact on the number of invertebrates and reduce the suitability of the ponds for many amphibians. The larvae of great crested newts are particularly vulnerable to predation by fish and are rarely found where fish are present in ponds.
The best time of year to undertake pond management is over the winter. This should be typically undertaken between 1st November and 31st January inclusive.
Usual management activities needed to maintain a pond are as follows:
- Invasive aquatic plants can sometimes appear in new ponds, so it is worth keeping an eye out for the worst offenders, such as New Zealand pigmy weed and Parrots Feather. Refer to links for more information regarding identification and management.
- If scrub starts to develop around the pond it is worth managing it so it does not shade the pond out – although some dappled shade is good. Keeping the pond open and sunny is very important. It can often be a balancing act to retain good terrestrial habitat (such as that provided by trees and scrub) and to keep ponds open. A good compromise is to retain trees on the northern side of the pond, but keeping the southern perimeter open.
- Reedmace and common reed can often colonise ponds, and they can be very invasive, swiftly out competing other plants particularly in small ponds. It may be necessary to remove both to encourage a diverse pond community, but should be undertaken sensitively and not all in one season.
You can find more detailed information on creating wildlife ponds at the Freshwater Habitats Trusts pond clinic
If you farm in Scotland, you may find this information on creating ponds useful
Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms
Authors: Gethin Davies (RSPB), Anna Hobbs (BBCT), Stuart Taylor (farmer, Argoed) Dairying can be a challenging sector for farmers and wildlife. Small margins have driven increasing scale, efficiency and specialisation, which has tended to squeeze out people and space for nature. The number of dairy farmers in the UK has declined by two thirds since…Read More