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What is the point of ponds?

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Posted: Friday 14th December 2018 by WildBlog

(c) Pete Herridge

By Elisabeth Winkler Avon Wildlife Trust Communications Assistant

In the old days, every farm would have a pond filled with rainwater.

Called dew ponds, these watering holes for livestock were also breeding grounds for wildlife. However, with modern improvements such as mains water, these beautiful saucers of water gradually fell into disuse. Silted up with soil and leaves, they ceased to collect rainwater. Without cattle to trample or munch the grass, the ponds became overgrown.

The UK has lost nearly 70% of its ponds in the last 100 years. This is a death knell for dragonflies, damselflies, newts, frogs and toads which need fresh water to breed. In turn this deprives birds of their food, and may be a factor in their decline.

Avon Wildlife Trust is working hard to restore these ancient ponds on its nature reserves, inspired by the Mendip Ponds Project run by RAGS (Reptile and Amphibian Group of Somerset. One of our conservation volunteers, John Howard, also working with RAGS, got the ball rolling by investigating whether any ancient ponds existed on our nature reserves that could be similarly restored for the benefit of wildlife.

It is historical detective work. Farm ponds were so important, they used to be marked on maps. It is by studying 18th and 19th century maps that these ghosts of ponds can be located, even when no longer visible on the ground.

The Avon Wildlife Trust is working on the restoration of two ancient cart ponds on the Mendip Hills: one at Hellenge Hill nature reserve near Bleadon, the other at Dolebury Warren nature reserve near Churchill.

Most of the ponds on the Mendips were formed from quarrying for limestone. Some of these scooped-out hollows were designed as cart ponds so that a horse-drawn cart could ride down one slope and out the other, cleaning timber-wheels and horses in the process.

Expertly constructed by small gangs of travelling pond makers, they were lined with flagstones, and, using local materials, sealed with limestone mixed with water to make them waterproof. Some have graded levels to prevent livestock from stumbling in.

It takes about three to four visits for our regular volunteer groups of around 15 people to clear a pond of muddy soil. The volunteers use shovels to fill buckets with the silty sludge and pass it along hand-by-hand to the next volunteer in a human production line. Although the edges sometimes need repair, the ponds are miraculously intact under decades of sludge. Once cleared, the pond is re-mortared the traditional way, using limestone to form a sealant.

Do come volunteer. It is great opportunity to work outdoors, learn about local history and traditional building crafts, as well as bringing wildlife back to the Mendips. 

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