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A Pond with a Difference

The idea to create a pond quickly gained momentum and became a haven for wildlife. Gill Williams explains how a small project developed beyond all recognition

As Conrad Hilton so famously said – the secret to success is location, location, location. So the siting of our pond on a critter crossroads above railway sidings and wetlands guaranteed it would become a des-res for Hertfordshire wildlife.

The project began in December three years ago and like all good ponds, it started with a hole in the ground.

Nature does most of the work in making a wildlife pond but she does need a little bit of help at the beginning. A team of enthusiastic diggers cut into our stony hillside where once upon a time a Roman legion made camp. Sharp pieces of flint, Victorian pottery and even a fossil or two were unearthed as the pond grew and grew. We’d planned a small water feature and ended up with something not far short of Lake Tanganyika.

Shelves were built near the top of the hole to give birds a platform when they flit down for a drink. Then a beach was created, sloping gently from the depths so frogs and toads, field mice and other smaller residents of the garden can make their way safely in and out of the water. And finally, the whole pond was lined with sand and felt so that stones wouldn’t rip the polythene liner.

Many garden centres will try and sell you chemicals to neutralise the chlorine in our tap water to make it safe for plants and animals. In my four ponds’ worth of experience, it’s much easier to let the chlorine evaporate naturally. We let the pond sit for a couple of weeks before planting. Then barrels beneath gutterings catch rainwater to top up our levels during summer.

Plants were added in a last-minute frenzy that would have done the Ground Force team proud. Huge native flag irises and bull rushes in heavy containers were sunk to the bottom of the pool. Marsh marigolds were planted around the edges and wafts of water forget-me-nots spread at a rate of knots in the shallows. Once the initial planting was done, Mother Nature was left to do her stuff. She chose unlikely servants in the form of a pair of opportunistic mallard ducks who decided to make the pond their home during its first spring.

Drakes love garden ponds during mating season – somewhere to bring their sweethearts away from the competition. Most gardeners have mixed feelings about ducks. On the one hand – or webbed foot – there is something dreamily nostalgic about having ducks splashing about in your garden pond. On the other hand, ducks are incredibly destructive. Sticky beaks get stuck into aquatic pots, turning uptails all as they gouge out young shoots and rip up irises and reeds. And our ducks, Feathers and Quack, soon muscled in on the garden birds’ food, using bullyboy tactics the squirrels could only stand back and admire. Yet the mallards carry the eggs of dozens of minute species of plants, insects and animals on their feet. Most exciting of all, they ferried in a founding generation of Hertford newts.

The newts appeared almost overnight, young wrigglers we caught in our pond nets then carefully restored to the depths. Within just a few weeks we had a healthy breeding colony with two out of three of Southern England’s native newts – the Smooth variety (less flatteringly called triturus vulgarus) and the pretty Palmate newt. The ducks laid eggs in the long grasses around the pond, a full English breakfast gratefully devoured by a hungry vixen feeding her spring cubs. The ducks finally cottoned on that there were safer nesting spots and they flew off into the sunset – to return the following spring. Water boatmen skim across the surface and mayflies and dragonflies dart around the reeds.

A few weeks after the pond was built, you could dip a jar into the water and come up with a veritable bouillabaisse of insect life. "You’ll have a problem with mozzies," a friend predicted when she saw larvae floating on the surface. On the contrary, we can now sit out on a summer’s evening just a few metres from the water without having to reach for the citronella – thanks to the resident toads. The toads arrived all by themselves. The hillside pond overlooks Hertfordshire’s largest wetlands where four rivers flood marshy meadows. In spring, the toads migrate to these flood plains, hopping great distances in their determination to meet the girlie toad of their dreams.

Wildlife groups erect warning: ‘toad crossing’ signs and ferry the love-struck toads to safety across busy roads. The toads passing through our garden decided to stay. A nice log pile with unobstructed views across the water – what more could a toad want. And all the slugs you can eat. (Within months we had no slugs in the garden whereas our neighbours, who rely on slug pellets and pesticides, are still fighting a war against the hosta-eating little beasts).

Frogs, too, have make our pond their home, arriving about March and alternating their time between the water and garden borders. There are frogs of all colours, from dark brown to red and light yellow – Britain’s Common Frog and as common as muck in our backyard. They come out at dusk, lurking on lily pads, hoping to be kissed. You can hear them plopping into the water as you walk up to the pond after dark. This summer, though, frog numbers declined. Frogs are a tasty treat for lots of different animals, from herons to owls and even foxes. Yet while a lone owl sometimes hoots in our oak trees, it didn’t seem likely that just one birdie could be responsible for a sudden drop in population.

The mystery was solved one summer’s day, the culprit curled up on the warm stones at the water’s edge. An adder had arrived in our garden, the only poisonous snake in Britain and taking full advantage of free board and lodging. Last year’s long, dry summer has been disastrous for many species of wildlife but wonderful for snakes, who relish warm weather. There were record sightings of adders in Hertfordshire through 2003. The adder slipped beneath the surface as I approached but sometimes reappears, slithering through the long grass beneath the apple trees. At other times, we see grass snakes in the shrubbery. In winter, the pond seems quieter but a thick covering of snow tells many stories.

Last January, telltale footprints gave away the presence of nocturnal visitors. There were our regulars, the young male fox who grew up behind the garden shed and now lives in the woodlands beside the railway tracks; and the silver badger who snuffles for peanuts beneath the bird table. Then there were prints of wild animals we never knew we had – the enormous feet of a hare and the twinkle toes of a tiny Asian muntjak deer. All the tracks eventually led to the pond, as busy after dark as a waterhole in an African safari park.

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