Ignorance Is Not Bliss

People can’t recognize the plants around them any more, which seems a bit odd. You’d think they’d be a bit inquisitive about the flowers and trees they see everyday, but most people wouldn’t be able to identify an ash (let alone one that’s diseased).

Many of our reptiles and amphibia are a complete unknown for most of us, particularly as they get rarer; I’m not sure I would have guessed that this splendid chap was in fact a native Briton – would you?* That lack of curiosity about what’s happening in our back gardens is problemmatic for the scientists. I went to a talk given by Pond Conservation’s Jeremy Biggs a couple of weeks ago, in which it became obvious that lack of funding and hence reliable data has been a real problem. As a result of PC’s work we’re only now getting sense of how polluted our ponds are, and how important garden ponds are in preserving our aquatic wildlife as a consequence.

Fill in a Record Pool Sighting Card!Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and ARG UK, whose 100% fund we support, are asking folk to record their sitings of amphibia and reptiles. You can click on the button on the left to take part, and their website carries links to helpful identification resources. This sort of citizen survey might seem a bit gimmicky, but it’s not; we’re desperately short of this kind of information. Our reptiles and amphibians seem to be in sharp decline, but the experts aren’t sure how how bad things really are, let alone the reasons why.

It’s also a good way of getting people to have a more careful and informed look at what they are seeing, which is a particular issue with anything looking remotely like an adder. Ignorance definitely isn’t bliss for the thousands of slow worms chopped up every year by gardeners who find them in their compost heaps.

*He’s a Natterjack Toad – photo from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation

Pond Conservation

I’ve eulogized Pond Conservation and its director Jeremy Biggs before. They’re a tiny but good charity, punching above their weight and communicating sometimes unpalatable messages based on good science. In the freshwater line of things we already give money to the excellent Amphibian and Reptile Groups’ 100% fund, so we’ve just signed up as a Pond Conservation corporate associate too.

Charities explicitly working for habitats rather than animals are to be applauded It’s a difficult ask, as the now sadly defunct Grassland Trust found out; it’s much easier to appeal to people to preserve something loveable and fluffy. The fauna associated with ponds aren’t popular either, which makes pond and amphibian and reptile charities the Cinderellas of the conservation world. People love mammals and birds, and iconic species like bees and butterflies. They don’t like snakes and toads, and newts start them sniggering.

This would be ok if all was well in the world of herpetofauna*, but it isn’t. Perhaps surprisingly, given the good news stories about rivers we often seem to hear, such ponds as do still exist after all the drainage schemes of recent history have such poor water quality they’re pretty hopeless, ecologically speaking. Their high nutrient levels also support invasive plants, which hardly help. Pond Conservation hope their million pond project might help.

The other reason we’re supporting Pond Conservation is that I really, really just like ponds and their associated flora and fauna. We’ve put in several ponds for our courses and a lovely one at our previous house, and the landscaping project at our new house will include a lot of water (somewhat ironic, given the Somme-like state of the building site currently!). To my mind it’s the first step in creating any garden ecosystem; our ponds won’t just bring the obvious animals in, but also birds and bats. Not only that but, full of native aquatic plants, they will look stunning.

*amphibians and reptiles

Herpetofauna


Photo:Gordon Cragg

Herpetofauna:
a) A sexually transmitted parasite
b) A psychological condition in which female cat owners pay more attention to their cats than their partners (geddit?)
c) Protozoa living in the oral mucosa
c) Amphibians and reptiles
?

If I’d got the answer wrong my recent trip to the Herpetofauna workers’ conference in Telford would have given me plenty of shopping time. I had some early reassurance on the way to the Conference Centre when I walked past Telford’s bubbling blowing frog clock, but I was a bit nervous even if I’d got the gist of the weekend right. It turns out I shouldn’t have worried. The herpy crowd are an enthusiastic and entertaining lot, even though they wear trousers with too many zips and feel compelled to pun terribly, usually about newts. Many of them were from the various Amphibian and Reptile Groups (“ARG”s) of the UK, to whom Habitat Aid bungs a tiny amount of money to via the ARG 100% fund, which is a very good institution.
I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible and engaging the presentations were; I enjoy listening to bright young academics, and I didn’t feel patronized. There was some inevitable mystification – I was puzzled by the problems with GCNs and gully pots*, for example – but I came away enlightened and enthused, even though I had to leave early and hung over on Sunday morning. I won a rather smart newt mug in Saturday night’s raffle, presented by Nick “Bugboy” Baker, which made up for the disappointment of our team coming last in a bizarre post dinner quiz (so far as I remember won by a team called “Slow Worms and Lesbians”). Other Herpy celebs there included Mr Biggs of Ponds, who is planning another major pond exercise with Pond Conservation.

What take-aways can I bring you from the world of UK herpetology? First, the bad news. As I’ve blogged before, herps sit at the unloved end of the conservation spectrum. Snakes are scary and newts are expensive. Because people don’t like them we don’t spend enough money on them, which means we don’t know enough about what they do. This means there is a lack of hard information available to lobby the government to put more money into funding research and protection. It’s a vicious circle. Negative public perception and lack of reliable data were common themes running through most of the presentations and discussion groups. Unsurprisingly,the poor old adder featured regularly. In terms of specific issues there’s the chytrid fungus to worry about, which was the subject of a nationwide survey last year, and continuing extinctions; I would have liked to have met a Glutinous Snail before it disappeared from England in 2010. There was also the odd elephant galumphing about the conference room, like the lack of clean ponds in the UK.
There are some good things happening, however. Ironically, the fact that herps are so far down the pecking order means that current cutbacks aren’t affecting government spending on them – even possibly the opposite. Perceptions are changing, partly down to the work ARG groups are doing, and folk are beginning to understand the advantages of having reptiles in their gardens (slow worms, for example, are great slug killers). The more widespread use of SUDS^ is creating new habitat for herps, and everyone seems to be agreed about the basic strategy of linking existing habitats.

Our new garden here will be herp heaven, bursting with fantastic habitat, but I was reminded to get the compost heap built ASAP to get some slow worms in. Job now done. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make more money for the ARG Fund.

*Great Crested Newts get stuck in road drains
^ Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (swales and ponds)

Mini-ponds

Planners permitting (!) there’s going to be a fair amount of water knocking about around our new house, and I couldn’t wait to get started with the three mini-ponds (around 1.5m across) we wanted which don’t need permission. I think it was Pond Conservation’s recent pond digging day that got me charging out into the field armed with my spade before the recent rain. Regular readers of this blog will know I just LOVE ponds – their look, their flora and fauna- they’re fascinating, and I have no idea why everyone doesn’t have one. They’re so easy to make too; I had my three mini-ponds done and dusted in an afternoon. We’re lucky because we’re on solid clay, so I didn’t even have to line one of them.
So far as I understand there are a few golden rules to my sort of pond:
1. Don’t dig them too deep. The one without the liner I’ve dug down to about 1/2 metre at its deepest because the top 20cm of soil won’t hold water.
2. Don’t fill them with tap water.
3. No fish – they’ll eat everything.
4. Be careful what and how you plant. I will only plant natives in my ponds, and very selectively – i.e. nothing that’s going to take over. A purist would say wait until the local flora blows in, but I’m an impatient type and like to have some control over how the pond will look – I’ve got my favourite plants. The aquatic and marginal plants we sell on the website are widely distributed throughout the UK, so you can’t go wrong with them. I also include a boggy area in any pond I dig, which enables me to include plants like Ragged Robin – some of the most beautiful wildflowers we have enjoy the wet. People seem to get in to a pickle when trying to plant on a liner. I don’t like pots, so either chuck in some subsoil to use as a growing medium (i.e. nothing nutrient rich), which covers the liner too, or for bigger ponds you could use our pre-planted coir mats. Having seen Bentomat used for larger pond projects I’d swear by it rather than using a more traditional liner, by the way. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it is so easy to plant on.
For a better guide please look at the Pond Conservation site, which also offers advice on pond problems. It will also help explain what the mini-beasts are which mysteriously start to arrive in your mini-pond within hours of the first rain falling…

The Mr. Biggs of Ponds

Azolla
250 Cable Street
It’s rare you come across a voice of authority you can absolutely depend as a free resource online. If your life depended on it and you were asked where in Bermondsey Bombardier Billy Wells was born, would you check it in Wikipedia or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography?

That’s why The Garden Pond Blog is a bit of a treasure. Then again it should be; it’s the personal blog of Jeremy Biggs, the director of Pond Conservation. It contains a wealth of practical and concise information on ponds and the problems of ponds, using his own as a reference point, together with informed comment on relevant stories. For example in August he wrote about water fern, or Azolla filiculoides. Water fern is one of those non-native imports which folk like me have been jumping up and down and getting excited about. It hit the news recently because there was a nice-weevil-eats-bad-plant story carried in the Press. I was interested as I’ve seen some awful infestations of the stuff, which can be really pernicious. According to The Garden Pond Blog the story was badly reported. Like many aquatic problems, dense growths of water ferns are more a symptom of pollution – in this case high levels of phosphorous.

As a pond enthusiast I’m a subscriber, but I’d recommend anyone to bookmark the site just for reference. If you want to make your own pond, however small, do it now – and look no further for a guide.

Dragonfly Delight

Of all the projects I’ve done since we moved to Somerset the pond I look at from my desk takes some beating. It was only finished in late spring, the happy child of a pond creation course we ran with Hugh Roberts – you might remember my original blog about it. Everyone seems to say the same thing about well planned wildlife ponds: “I have been amazed at how quickly the animals moved in”. Well, I’m amazed at how quickly the animals moved in. It has been a fantastic illustration of what we are trying to promote; a stunning landscape feature which also happens to be stuffed with the most beautiful and/or intriguing fauna. To start with, the plants have been a revelation. I had no idea native plants for water margins could be so pretty, nor that they could get established so quickly. We haven’t yet seen the half of it as we used plugs and a seed mix, which won’t flower until next year and includes some of my absolute all time favourite plants. As to the animals that are pitching up…extraordinary. I’ve already blogged about the bees, now enjoying the Purple loosestrife, and the butterflies love the nectar plants too. Of course there all the aquatic invertebrates, of which I suppose my favourite are the shiny plump water beetles. I wonder which they are? Time for closer investigation.
The most exotic to my untutored eye are the dragonflies and damselflies. Earlier this summer we had Broad-bodied Chasers, and in the course of yesterday I saw an Emperor Dragonfly and some lovely Damselflies (I think a Common coenagrion and Banded demoiselle), together with a sudden clattering of wings and beating flurry of mating Common sympetrums. Not surprisingly the variety and number of birds around the pond is off the clock…

Common sympetrum
Common sympetrum dragonfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly
Enallagma cyathigerum
Common coenagrion?

It’s sad that I find this explosion of animal life so remarkable; ponds seem to be much less in our collective consciousness now, which is something Pond Conservation’s Million Ponds Project is trying to reverse. Project director Jeremy Biggs has the most brilliant pond blog, incidentally, which is an invaluable online resource. Perhaps he could help me out with my damselflies and beetles…