Why Cheshire is the ‘pond capital’ of Europe

Pond dipping

Pond dipping - Credit: Matthew Roberts

heshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy explains why these watery havens are so vital for wildlife.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly - Credit: Neil Phillips

For many of us the word ‘pond’ brings up images of a small garden water feature, water lilies floating on its calm surface while orange finned fish flicker through its shallows. And yet ponds are far more variable, fascinating and important than you may realise.

They can range in size from no more than a puddle to an impressive two hectares, roughly the size of two football pitches. The water within them can exist in a steady state all year round, or be temporary, drying up in the summer only to reappear with the winter rains. Many ponds can survive for hundreds of years, or fill in and disappear within a few decades. You can find them anywhere, across all kinds of different habitats, nestled between the trees of a woodland, hidden in the heather on a heathland, or even perched within the swampy heart of a mossland.

It is estimated that over 400,000 ponds exist across the UK, not including the ornamental and garden varieties. Amazingly two-thirds of all freshwater species in our country are supported by them, and many rare and unusual species live in their waters. The great diving beetle for example thrives in healthy ponds. This veracious predator grows up to 3cm in length but is rarely seen, as it spends most of its time underwater. Although perfectly adapted to an aquatic existence most diving beetles are also happy to take to the wing, often leaving the safety of the water to find new foraging areas or mates.

At Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s headquarters the closely related but far rarer lesser silver water beetle has been found to be thriving in several of our farm’s ponds. This water beetle gets its name due to tiny hairs across its body which help it trap air, allowing it to breathe underwater and giving it a silvery sheen.

Great diving beetle

Great diving beetle - Credit: Jack Perks

Another fascinating pond dweller is the caddis fly. There are many different species of caddis fly, but the larvae of several choose to build themselves their home by sticking together pieces of detritus to form a case. Different caddis fly species prefer different building materials, meaning some have neat linear pieces of grass and rushes as their dwellings while others, like the stone caddis fly, live inside a mosaic of tiny pebbles or grains of sand. These crafty underwater predators eventually emerge from the water and take their adult form, flying off to find new areas to live.

As well as insect species, ponds are home to all kinds of amphibians. Newts spend much of their time away from the water outside the summer months. During winter they hibernate in the safety of a wood pile or nestled deep inside twisted tree roots. But come mating season these quirky little creatures slowly make their way back to their watery home to compete for partners and strut their stuff.

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Great crested newts are our largest species, and are easily distinguished from palmate and smooth newts by their rough coal black skin and fiery orange bellies. Great crested newts aren’t the only newt species to bear a crest. The males of all three species develop a crest during mating season, and use it to attract their partner, although its size varies significantly between the species.

Another amphibian fond of ponds is the nationally rare natterjack toad. Toads can be distinguished from frogs by their warty skin, their broader more squat bodies and the fact they crawl rather than hop. The natterjack can easily be distinguished from our only other native toad species, the common toad, by the yellow line which runs down its back. At Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Red Rocks Marsh nature reserve, strings of toad spawn appear within the coastal ponds, nestled among the sand dunes. The natterjack toads then live out their time in the dunes eating small insects and slugs.

Water vole sniffing the air

Water vole sniffing the air - Credit: Tom Marshall

Even some reptiles make ponds their own. Many people may dread the sight of that long scaly body but in fact the grass snake is entirely harmless. Without venom and shy of people, the grass snake is a superb swimmer and has a particular taste for frogs and even small fish. It is easy to identify from the UK’s only other two snake species by the white collar about its neck and the round pupils in its eyes.

Another surprising pond user is the Daubenton’s bat. This small, white-bellied bat, flies close to the surface of the water to catch insects on the wing. It will hunt over ponds, lakes and even rivers and uses its tail to scoop up the tasty morsels as it goes. Other bat species indirectly benefit from the presence of ponds, as they are an excellent nursery for insect species. Once these insects take to wing they become bread and butter for our tiny pipistrelles, fascinating horseshoe and rare grey long-eared bats.

And even mammals enjoy the benefits of ponds. The most charming example of course has to be the water vole. This rather rotund looking rodent will live in the banks of clean ponds and rivers and eat the young green vegetation from in and around the pool. Other mammals may benefit from the ponds as a source of water. Hedgehogs, foxes, deer and badgers may all make trips to drink from the clean fresh water from time to time, particularly in the hot summer months when water becomes scarcer.

And many birds are more at home on the water than on land. Coots and moorhens are common pond visitors, and are easy to tell apart by the colour of the mask on their face, red in moorhens and white in coots. Coots have particularly large, wide toes which help them to tread carefully across floating vegetation. Swifts, swallows and house martins can often be seen swooping low over pools as they dip in their beaks to catch a quick drink before rising once more. And many upland ponds, which sit within rolling hills of heather, or in the heart of a mossland, support some of our rarest bird species, from black-necked divers to the velvet scoter.

From brilliant dragonflies patrolling the rushes, to the once locally extinct marsh harrier making its nest within the reedbeds, to the beautiful bog bean blooming above the dark waters, ponds give life wherever they are. And yet one by one our ponds are being lost. It’s estimated that over half a million ponds have been lost in the 20th century, largely through infilling or drainage of surrounding land.

Of those ponds that remain, only 20% are thought to be in good condition, with most being highly polluted by run-off of fertilisers and pesticides from surrounding land, or being swamped by invasive species, such as New Zealand pygmyweed, which out-compete our delicate native plants.

Many ponds have also been modified, with temporary ponds being dug deeper to make them permanent or smaller ponds being enlarged. And often fish have been introduced, meaning invertebrates and amphibians have no refuge from these veracious predators. These alterations often mean those species adapted to living in these small, temporary or fish-free water bodies, die out or reduce drastically in numbers.

And yet there is hope. Ponds can be cleaned up and brought back. All that is needed is a little care and understanding of these amazing wildlife havens. If we make an effort to clean up our water by using fewer fertilisers and pesticides, and leaving buffers around the water’s edge; if we remove or control invasive species and introduced fish; if we reduce the abstraction of water in vulnerable areas, ponds will recover and along with them so will our wonderful native wildlife. After all, these little patches of tranquillity are well worth saving in our often busy and hectic world.

Take the plunge

If you’re inspired, why not create your own pond and help wildlife? A pond can be a home, a breeding site, a drinking place or somewhere to feed for many different creatures. Even better, a marshy area next to a pond makes a natural link between the water and its surrounding space.

For information on how to create a pond for wildlife including size, position and plant advice visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/garden_advice

Having a garden pond is one of the many qualifiers for Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s ‘My Wildlife Friendly Garden’ Award. Wildlife friendly gardening is all about making a haven for wildlife as well as for you. A few simple changes in your garden can make a big difference and you can earn yourself an award too!

Visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/mywildlifegarden to find out more.