Wildlife and plants – before and after

This post starts by describing the wildlife and plants we found before the pond was cleaned, and then goes on to a monthly diary for 2012, setting out how the pond and its surroundings are evolving in their new form, including our new plantings.

What we found

All the printed and web authorities on the subject say that before restoring a pond it is important to know what plant and animal life is being disturbed and to plan strategies to minimise the damage, if possible phasing the work over more than one season. Some also suggested we should commission a proper study by a professional ecologist. But we already knew something about the costs of doing that: we spent £400 on a survey of the orchids in the garden, which proved to harbour species together with a rare viper’s tongue fern. The orchid survey was a condition of our planning and listed building permissions for repairs to the house.

Instead of hiring the ecologist again, we kept our eyes open and also consulted the previous owners on what they had found over the years. We quickly came to the view that the wildlife in the pond was in decline and that as the silt deepened it was somehow throttling plant life and discouraging insects.

Ducks in early summer – contributors to the deterioration of the pond

The previous owners reported that the pond had once contained crayfish and that a water vole had lived in the bank. We saw no evidence of crayfish. The only animal swimming looked like a rat from a distance, but on reflection may well have been a water vole. There was no sign of Great Crested Newts, but each spring there was a large quantity of frog spawn. The eggs hatched well before the pond dried. Almost every day in the summer we came across frogs, small and large, that had fled the pond and were living throughout the garden in every patch of long grass or pile of twigs. We very much hope that when the pond settles down again it will attract back all these creatures apart, perhaps, from the rat.

In the first couple of summers, there was also much insect activity on the surface of the pond, with water boatmen and other surface skimming creatures, and crowds of midges later in the season. But within a couple of years only the dragon flies and the midges persisted. We now suspect that the diminishing of insect life after the third year may have been caused by our first trial attempt at clearing part of the pond, when we removed mud at one end. Disturbance of the silt released bubbles of foul smelling gas. Who knows what noxious substances our spadework stirred up from 80 years of deposits in a farm pond. Repeated examination of the black silt showed no evidence of any creatures visible to the naked eye. It seemed to be inert.

There was a pair of moorhens, which nested in an ivy covered tree stump next to the pond and stayed with us each summer until the last drop of water had gone, as did the two or three pairs of ducks which were regular visitors. They hatched and trained broods of up to a dozen ducklings before the water disappeared in August, scouring the mud for food until the surface began to dry hard. Since we could find no evidence of animal life in the mud, we wondered what the ducks were eating. Perhaps fallen seeds? While the pond was being desilted, the ducks deserted us, but the moorhens and their half grown chicks returned to their home each evening, and bathed in the puddles that were left.

Ducks are a problem, but also a delight. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust and a charity called Pond Conservation both advise against encouraging them. They stir the water into a muddy soup, enrich it too much with their waste and are ravenous feeders, so that ponds with large duck populations tend to be bleak and muddy and afflicted by algae, which blocks light and slows other plant life. The wildlife trust advises against feeding ducks, which encourages more to come.

We made a duck island – but it attracted too many ducks. It has been taken away.

Our pond was certainly popular with them in the spring. One day we counted 20, including 7 chicks. They were an endless amusement, fighting, feeding, taking off and landing; but the water was so shallow that it looked like suspended mud when they fed, which was by shoving their bills through it. Stirring of the sediment may have been one of the main reasons for the lifelessness of the pond. When the pond is desilted the water will be much deeper and there will be large areas where the ducks will not be able to bottom feed. We hope this will deter them. A couple would be perfect, but 20 are a real nuisance. The drawback of a deeper pond, according to the Wildlife Trust, is that it encourages fewer species of plants and animals. But our view is that the advantages of a cleaner pond make it much the best option.

The plant life in the margins of the pond was dominated by Reed Mace, yellow Flag Iris and some unidentified smaller reeds, all of which are useful for water purification, water mint and clumps of Kingcups (Marsh Marigolds).

Iris thrived

Wild roses and brambles tumbled over the edges.The only plant life actually in the water was blanket weed choking the bottom and floating to the surface in the late spring and a bloom of duckweed that smothered everything in the summer. The duck weed has disappeared since the first dig into the silt.

Duckweed taking over in early summer, reeds encroaching

There was a riot of pussy willows at one end, and a line of enormous ash trees down one bank, two of which were leaning over the pond and on the point of collapse , so were removed. Hazels, hawthorn, blackthorn and field maples also shaded the pond.

We cut back most of the small willows, and trimmed a giant willow, which was leaning and at risk of collapse under its own weight. One reason for pruning and removing trees (mostly done by a professional tree surgeon) was to increase the amount of light and reduce the leaf fall, both of which will help keep the water healthier.

Pruning the ash trees by the pond

We will update later on how quickly the animal and plant life returns. To speed the process, we intend to plant soon Glyceria Fluitans (Floating Sweet-grass), which we have seen described as a water vole”s favourite food. We are also thinking of planting – in addition to the existing yellow Iris, reed mace – bogbean, water mint, flowering rush, water forget-me-not (in the shallows), and one or two water lilies. We have yet to decide on the oxygenators, such as rigid hornwort.

Month by month

February 2012

The ducks have returned, sometimes six or seven, but the water is already too deep for them to feed in the middle. Even so, whenever they feed round the edges the whole body of water goes muddy. Moorhens back.

What looks like blanket weed is visible, growing close to the bottom at this stage.

Some watercress-like plants, yet to be firmly identified after consulting several reference books and the web, are thriving round the edge on the new banks, and some seem to have found their way into the water and are growing on the bottom. This is a plant that spread rapidly on top of the mud each year as soon as the pond had dried. We must find out what it is and whether it is invasive. It is also growing in the roadside ditches nearby.

March 2012

Pond filling, though still about 30-40 centimetres lower than its normal spring level. (Headlines in the papers about the worst drought in East Anglia for a hundred years.) A start made on planting: three buckets with water lilies – planted in loamy soil with gravel over – placed on the bottom in 60-90 cm of water.

Just planted a water lily – slippery bottom, so carrying a stick for balance.

The first bog garden has been created at one end of the pond, behind a 15 cm high brick and stone barrier, which will eventually be under water. The barrier is to stop the mud and compost mixture in the bog garden sliding back into the pond. Planted bog bean, yellow Iris and Primula Florindae.

Floated three pieces of Water Soldier in the pond, having checked that it is easy to control.

Frogs mating in the overflow pipe. Not much doubt that amphibians will like the pond. They are so hardy. This month we discovered a large toad living at the bottom of our well, nearly 5 metres down. At first we thought it must have just fallen down through a crack in the cover. But then a day later we spotted a small, young companion. Is there a complete ecosystem (of food and mating toads) down there? To investigate further. The big one looked fat and healthy from a distance. Could this be the first line of a new Grimm tale: once upon a time, a toad lived at the bottom of a deep, deep well…..?

Kingcups reappearing at the pond edge. And then the frogs came back….

Frogspawn appears

April

Tadpoles hatched. Thousands of tiny black insects, too small to tell whether beetles or flies, are jumping about above the surface of the water – like fleas? What looks like a mosquito larva floating just under the surface. Two broken duck eggs on the grass, away from the pond.

Very large amount of floating blanket weed appearing on the surface, removed with a grass rake and left on bank edge for trapped creatures to get back to the water.

Burrows that may be water voles have appeared near water level. Water boatman. Daphnaea in large numbers, a freshwater shrimp.

Kingcups in flower and flourishing again. Water lilies showing stems and leaves but haven’t broken surface.

Barn owl a regular – swoops around the little field across from the end of the garden.

Planted reeds (growing in pile of pond mud) around edge in some places to speed consolidation of mud, in the hope that they won’t spread into the pond now the water is so deep. If they do, the new clean bottom will allow us to get at them and cut them back. Also planted watercress-like plant around the edges (still not identified) because it spreads rapidly but is easy to pull out if it becomes invasive.

Gunnera Manicata seem to have been a victim of the winter, or maybe the earlier drought.

May

No sign of the blanket weed reappearing. Book says daphnaea are voracious eaters of algae, so maybe they are helping.

Kingcups still flowering. Astilbe growing in pots by the pond while we think of where to put them. Rheum Palmatum ditto.

Kingcups

One of the Gunnera showing signs of reviving. Planted several more.

A birch sapling planted a couple of metres back from the pond. Also planted water mint.

Water lilies seem to be fighting a losing battle against the ducks, which seem to break the leaves as soon as they reach the surface (or is the moorhen the guilty one?) Only the water lily in shallow water is thriving. The others send up shoots regularly, but then the leaves are attacked.

June

Gunnera now starting to establish itself, and this year’s planting doing better than last year’s. Moved Primula Florindae from a boggy area to a slope just above the pond.

Gunnera manicata


Pond warming up.

Watercress-like planted identified as Water Forget-me-not, which is spreading, and beginning to form rafts stretching out from the pond side. Rushes and reeds growing vigorously.

July

Very wet month. Large numbers of frogs in the garden. Irises flowered.

Planted water mint close to but not in the water. Bog bean beginning to grow after nearly disappearing. One of the water soldier plants is now enormous, having reproduced the original spray of leaves many times. A second one is much smaller. Can’t see the third at the moment. They were not planted but just put into the water. Put Carex Riparia, a grass-like plant, next to the water. (Can also be planted in the water.) Only the water lily in shallow water (about 50 cm) is thriving. The three in deeper water are struggling and one is not visible.

Two families of ducks have appeared, one with eight large ducklings and one with two small ones. The large ones must have hatched elsewhere. They have been diving deep and coming up with beaks full of what appears to be blanket weed. From time to time they disappear, to one of the three ponds within a couple of hundred yards. There are also two moorhen families, each with two chicks.

August

Warm weather, and a bloom appears on the surface. Concerned that it might be blue-green algae brought in by the ducks, but couldn’t positively identify it from web pictures and descriptions. Greeny brown rather than blue green. No structure visible to the naked eye – more like dust, but thickens up rapidly. However, after a week, it disappeared – in two days – leaving the water clear. Started pumping in much colder well water when the algae appeared, to see if lowering the temperature of the pond would make any difference. But no way of knowing whether this had any effect, because the bloom might have vanished anyway.

Dug over and cleaned up the large area covered by the mud pile in the winter, which was already being conquered by aggressive plants such as hogweed. Also cleared the ground right down to the pond on that side, and sowed the lot with grass seed, including some mixed wild grasses bought from theseedstore.co.uk. The plan is to keep it as rough grass rather than make a lawn. It will complement the even rougher grass in the meadow area which it adjoins, where we have orchids and fritillaries.

Planted the chocolate smelling Cosmos Dentata on a bank above the pond and Ligularia, with large burgundy leaves, right by the water, though not in it.

Cosmos dentata (chocolate)

Ligularia Britt Marie Crawford

Primula Florindae doing very well in its new position, a foot above the water rather than with its feet wet.

Prepared another small boggy are for future planting.

Far larger number of frogs around in the grass than in previous summers, presumably due to the wet weather.

Cleaned up the massive new growth of weeds and brambles on the west side side of the pond to expose the Rodgersia and Acanthus planted last year, which have survived the encroachment.

The coppiced hazel is growing back strongly right by the pond, and a sapling nearby seems to be trying to catch it up. We will keep both. There is also a field maple sapling by the pond which we will try to grow into a bush (because as a tree it would add too much shadow to the pond).

Water lilies, not yet flowering

Moved the three water lily tubs in deep water close to the one successful plant in shallow water. Needed a swimming costume to do it, because the water is far too deep for waders. The tubs have handles on them which makes it much easier to lift them. Two plants had some shoots and leaves but the third showed no evidence of either. All three were repositioned close together. If depth was the problem, then four feet of water is too much for this variety. Another explanation is that because they were placed deep, and sent up very long thin shoots to the surface, they were more vulnerable to accidental or deliberate damage by the large number of ducks on the pond.

September

Most of the new grass by the pond growing fast. It was given cut in the first week of the month, helped by the ducks and moorhens, which are grazing it (too energetically, in some places.) Planted two Eupatorium purpurea from Beth Chatto, where we saw it 2 metres high, near a pond. Water soldier seems to have broken up and sunk, after some of the 19 ducks were seen diving energetically around it, feeding on something close by or on it.

A moorhen struggled back into the pond with a broken leg, and hid in the reeds and hid in the reeds, calling in distress. Curiously, we saw none of the 6 moorhens on the pond the next day, and wondered whether the by now fully grown ducks had turned on them, breaking the poor bird’s legs. It has been war between ducks and moorhens all summer; the latter have a reputation for killing ducklings by grabbing them by the feet and dragging them under water, and they regularly chased away the ducklings when they got too near the reeds, so this could be the ducks fighting back. Later, we saw one of the ducks eat a quite large frog that had got too near, so their beaks seem powerful enough to break a moorhen’s legs.

October

Plenty of planting to do, after a visit to Crown Nursery at Ufford. Five Cornus sibrica alba were planted close to the edge of the pond, after clearing a patch of reeds to make way for them; we dug down about a foot to get out the vigorous roots, and refilled with clean garden soil. The Cornus have been planted for their red stems. We also planted two red-stemmed willows, a gift from a neighbour who found that they had seeded themselves in his path.

The new grass has thickened well and the bare patches have filled in.

November

Another visit to Crown nursery at the beginning of the month to buy Taxodium distichum, a swamp cypress which, as its name suggests, is perfect for the edge of a pond, and has a beautiful brick red autumn colour that can compete with any maple. The new tree is 6 foot tall.

The reeds are dying back, after growing vigorously well into the autumn. There will have to be a campaign to hold them back next year. They are very attractive, and good at consolidating the soft banks, but they are extremely invasive, wherever there is damp ground. The plan is to build the reed equivalent of rabbit fence. Rabbits of course need a fence that goes below ground as well as above. For the reeds, geotextile will be inserted along a trench about a foot deep that will then be filled in. This underground barrier should corral the reeds where we want them.

The ash disease is big news, especially in Suffolk and Norfolk. Diseased trees have been identified only a few miles away. and we have been looking out for signs of it in the garden. We have been helped by Ashtag, a new iPhone app designed for reporting diseased trees. It has an identification guide on it.

Two neighbouring gardens as well as ours are dominated by individual large specimens, and it is hard to imagine what the hamlet would look like if they had to be felled. So far there has been no obvious sign of the disease. But we have decided to plant potential replacements preemptively in case the disease does reach us, so that whatever we put in has a head start of a few years.

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Corkscrew willow

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Ash trees after pruning

The big question is what to plant. Disease resistant ash? But reports suggest it could take some time to identify and propagate them. Black Poplar, perhaps, because it grows fast and has an attractive shape? Weeping willow? Another corkscrew willow, like the one we have already planted? Or we could go for slower growing trees. We have already planted a Holm Oak not too far from the ash, and two English oak have seeded themselves nearby and are now the right size to be moved. But we can’t wait for an oak to grow…

We are working on ash at the moment for a different reason. The trees we felled a year ago are a superb source of firewood that will last several years. Even very large sections of the main trunk split easily into logs that burn clean and hot. We have five or 10 tons of it to use up over the next couple of winters.

Ash logs waiting to be split

Ash logs waiting to be split

We also thinned our big specimen tree on the advice of a specialist. It only has a root system on one side because it is on the edge of the pond; he thought that, because of this asymmetry, its weight distribution high up could have dragged it over in a gale. As well as this pruning, we removed two medium ash trees that were leaning out over the pond at a crazy angle and looked about to topple into it and four smaller ones growing in the hedge.

December

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Rescuing old vines from Ickworth

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Frost on the reeds

Frozen ground round the pond, which had risen almost to the newly planted Cornus as the wet weather continued. No more pond-side plantings, but we did buy two 16-year-old vines from the walled garden vineyard at Ickworth, which is being dug up on the orders of the National Trust, which for reasons that nobody understands wants to turn it back into a pastiche of an Edwardian kitchen garden. (Shame – even the red wine is good.) The vines have been replanted 50 feet back from the pond. Fingers crossed that they thrive as well as they did at Ickworth. Meanwhile, the frost is decorating the dead brown autumn foliage of perennials and reeds with artificial flowers.

The vineyard at Ickworth

The vineyard at Ickworth

The pond begins to overflow, as a little stream starts. It runs through part of the next door garden to a pipe under the road and into the next pond down the slope, which in turn flows into a bigger stream. This shows how the local ponds are connected and helps explain why the wildlife returned so quickly.

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