Science & Environment

Push to create a million UK ponds

Jeremy Biggs
Image caption Good ponds have thriving wildlife - even if that means leeches as well

Details of a plan for a million healthy ponds in the UK are being announced to combat decades of neglect.

The charity Pond Conservation says ponds offer more species diversity than any other habitat per square metre.

But 80% of them are polluted - mostly by fertilisers and pesticides from farms, and also by run-off from streets and homes in towns and villages.

Pond Conservation say it is so hard to clean a pond fed by polluted streams that it is better to start afresh.

It wants to create a new generation of clean ponds entirely fed by rain.

The man leading the project, Dr Jeremy Biggs, said the plan was less ambitious than it sounded. He told me: "There are already half-a-million ponds in the UK - that means we only have to create another half-a-million.

"They really are the most wonderful habitat for wildlife that we hope this is going to prove really popular."

I met Jeremy in the heart of the New Forest at a pond he describes as one of the finest in the UK. It is a semi-seasonal pond which in summer resembles a watery bog puddled by horses and cows.

It is a mosaic of water and vegetation, overflown by darting dragonflies and skimmed by spiders that walk on water. But as we splash further into the mire, Jeremy says the wildlife will soon be heading in our direction.

Moments later dark shapes appear just under the milky surface. In seconds, more there are eight or 10 black torpedoes converge on Jeremy's boot - leeches, fat and hungry.

It is bizarre and slightly disturbing. Medicinal leeches are perfectly harmless - they just snack and go. But the water is writhing like a snake pit from an Indiana Jones movie.

Curious, I wonder how fast a leech could latch on to his hand. Jeremy demonstrates and in just a few seconds, there are leeches all over his hands. He tries to shake them off but they are more persistent and far more numerous than either of us had expected.

By the time they are removed, his hand is flowing with blood freed by the anti-coagulant injected by the leeches.

It is an incongruous moment as the sounds of children's voices drift through the dappling oaks whilst Jeremy's blood mixes with the milky waters of the pond, providing nutrients for the rare plants below.

He assures me that ponds in the Million Ponds Project do not have to feature leeches - and indeed a quick dip with a net pulls out a cornucopia of wildlife from water snails to many types of water beetle, to larvae for newts including the rare great crested newt.

Funding rules

Landowners wanting to take part in the Million Ponds Project can bid for funding.

The pond has to have clean water; it has not to be planted by the landowner; it must not be subject to features like excessive dog swimming, duck feeding or angling, and it should not be stocked for angling - although natural fish populations are fine.

Image caption Great crested newt: Biodiversity is the key

"There's nothing wrong with these activities," he says. "It's just that they don't help biodiversity and there are already plenty of places where they can take place."

High-quality ponds are a priority habitat under the Countryside Act (CROW). Landowners can get advice on creating new ponds from Pond Conservation.

The charity uses pond ecology rather than chemical sampling to assess the quality of ponds. They can tell by the range of species what pollutants are present.

Scottish good news

Dr Biggs says a survey has shown that 80% of ponds in England and Wales are degraded.

They are polluted by a range of factors including nutrients, heavy metals, sediments, biocides, excess fish or excess waterfowl. Only 8% are categorized as "good".

Two-thirds of ponds are categorised as polluted from the effect of just two agricultural chemicals - nitrogen and phosphorus.

In Scotland, only 10% are polluted, and it is estimated that half are in good condition.

Follow Roger Harrabin on Twitter: @rogerharrabin

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