What a difference a winter makes…

Following a seemingly endless wet winter, we are finally back in British Summer Time and the deep, clear, oxygen-rich waters in the restored ponds at Heydon, Norfolk are now ready to be re-colonised.

Last September, our Pond Restoration Research Group undertook an apparently near impossible challenge – to restore seven ponds in seven days. Kicking off on the 20th September, and with assistance from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and a volunteer workforce of local farmers, gamekeepers, students and conservationists, we got stuck into the restoration project. The purpose of the challenge was to show just how many restorations can be achieved relatively quickly and easily with a small team of volunteers. All the work was part of the Norfolk Ponds Project.

But why bother?’ – Well farmland ponds are numerous in the UK and have the potential to provide hotspots for aquatic species, even in intensively farmed areas. Until the mid 20th century farmland ponds were widely used for fertilising fields (via pond muds) and livestock-watering. Until recently they were also places for fishing and natural history exploration by children – I certainly remember being introduced to my first tadpole in a local pond! However, over recent decades, farmland ponds have suffered from neglect both by farmers and the public. Indeed, over the last 40-50 years, many farmland ponds have become overgrown by trees and bushes, with many others filled with soil and ploughed over to gain more agricultural land.

Our ambitious week-long project therefore aimed to buck the trend and we set out to restore seven farmland ponds in the Norfolk villages of Heydon and Bodham. To get all of the work done quickly and safely, volunteers split into small working parties armed with bowsaws, loppers and very thick gloves! Dense scrub was removed from the southern and western sides of the ponds to let light in. Once this was completed mud was removed by the magnificent Dominic (“Dom”) Arnold and his digger to reduce the build-up of dead leaves and organic matter which reduces oxygen in the water. Pond restorations are best carried out in the autumn and winter months to keep the impact on existing wildlife to a minimum. The benefit of completing a pond restoration in late September is that water levels are low, making any necessary sediment removal easier to achieve. It also means that the winter months with the heaviest rainfall are just ahead and this helps the ponds to fill quickly.

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Vegetation cleared, the digger gets stuck into clearing some mud at our first pond at Heydon

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Scraping back down to the marl layer following vegetation removal

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Pond filled with rainwater and primroses in bloom in February. Hibernacula made from the vegetation removed.

Overall we knew the work would have major benefits to the wildlife in the area, including amphibians, dragonflies and farmland birds. It’s a simple recipe for success demonstrated by much pond management carried out by Richard Waddingham at Manor Farm, Norfolk.

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Najas marina found at Pyes Pit following restoration last year.

By bringing light and oxygen back to my study ponds and in subsequent restorations, we have witnessed major increases in pond species and often very rare flora and fauna have returned to ponds in less than 6 months. A good example is the mega-rare Holly-leaved Naid (Najas marina), a water plant which turned up at Pyes Pit in Heydon. We were stunned!

When we left the 7 ponds in September, they looked messy to say the least – but they do say that you cant make an omelette without breaking some eggs! Even with our experience of pond restoration – it is easy to wonder if we have taken it a step too far. The impact of the digger removing loose organic sediment from the bottom of the pond causes a quick drop in water levels and the water that is left is a murky and uninviting brown soup.

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Pond 2 a muddy brown soup immediately after restoration in September

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Pond 2 filled to the brim and clear following the winter rains

Before the work began, each pond was considered individually and the amount of work we did was specific to each pond. Monitoring work by fellow PhD student Emily Alderton had already taken place at each of the ponds prior to the restoration so we knew about amphibians, plants and invertebrate species in the ponds before restoration. This knowledge influenced our actions. On two of the ponds the work undertaken only involved vegetation removal to allow light and wind onto the surface of the water because there were good stands of aquatic vegetation already present. We also made sure that a number of ponds close by were left in an overgrown state. The end result of our actions is a mixed “pondscape” of open and overgrown ponds creating lots of pondy variety.

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Another Heydon pond filled to the brim: this one required management rather than a full restoration

So are we on the right track? The purpose of the ‘7 Ponds’ project is to raise public awareness of the importance of ponds, and to demonstrate the positive impacts that farmland pond restoration can have. When we re-visited the ponds a few weeks a go, there were many positive signs. The ponds were brim full of water. Primroses were blooming heartily around the margins and some small shoots of aquatic vegetation could already be seen through the deep, clear spring water. At one of the ponds we disturbed two Roe deer that were having a drink. We predict that the 7 ponds will grow and draw in many species as the spring season really kicks in – watch this space and follow us on Twitter for updates!

 

 

The Norfolk Ponds Project started in 2014 and is partnership project between Norfolk Wildlife Trust, University College London, Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), Norfolk Rivers Trust, Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, Natural England, Norfolk Non-native Species Initiative, Norfolk County Council Historic Environment Scheme, Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS), National Trust and the Norfolk Freshwater Study Group.

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