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Restoring ponds can coax threatened birds back to farmland, says study

PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 March 2020 | UPDATED: 08:59 11 March 2020

Pond restoration can unlock the wildlife potential of farmland, says a new study. Pictured: Aquatic conservation specialist Carl Sayer at a restored pond in north Norfolk. Picture: Chris Hill

Pond restoration can unlock the wildlife potential of farmland, says a new study. Pictured: Aquatic conservation specialist Carl Sayer at a restored pond in north Norfolk. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

Restored farmland ponds attract three times as many birds as neglected and overgrown ones, according to Norfolk-based research.

The yellowhammer is one of the threatened The yellowhammer is one of the threatened "red list" species to benefit from farmland pond restorations in Norfolk. Picture: Peter Dent / iWitness24

Ponds used to be a common feature in the landscape, but since the 1950s many have been filled in to reclaim more land for farming.

Others have been left unmanaged, becoming overgrown and uninhabitable for many species.

But bringing back traditional management methods can benefit threatened farmland birds as well as wetland wildlife, according to research by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), Natural History Museum and University College London suggests.

The study compared ponds restored by the Norfolk Ponds Project, which aims to rejuvenate the wildlife potential of the county's estimated 23,000 ponds.

Comparison of bird species at restored and unrestored farmland ponds. Graphic: Natural History Museum, University College London, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, British Trust for OrnithologyComparison of bird species at restored and unrestored farmland ponds. Graphic: Natural History Museum, University College London, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, British Trust for Ornithology

Twice as many bird species were spotted at the restored ponds - with 36 species seen - compared to the overgrown ponds where just 18 species were recorded.

And there were almost three times as many birds seen overall in the restored ponds compared to the ones filled with trees, shrubs and mud.

There were 95 sightings of skylarks, linnets, yellowhammers and starlings in and around the restored water spots - once-common birds which have now been 'red listed' due to conservation concerns - while there were just two yellowhammer sightings at the overgrown ponds, and none of the other red listed birds.

Hannah Robson, wetland science manager at WWT, said: 'Our research shows how important it is to restore and manage ponds in farmland.

Comparison of emerging insect numbers at restored and unrestored farmland ponds. Graphic: Natural History Museum, University College London, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, British Trust for OrnithologyComparison of emerging insect numbers at restored and unrestored farmland ponds. Graphic: Natural History Museum, University College London, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, British Trust for Ornithology

'Even following long periods of dormancy, overgrown farmland ponds can quickly come back to life, with plants, amphibians and insects starting to colonise them in a matter of months.

'That is why this research could be an important pointer of where the UK's environmental and agricultural policy should focus post-Brexit.'

The researchers said birds are benefiting from the far more abundant insect life emerging from the restored ponds. And with the insects emerging at different times in different places, a network of restored ponds across the landscape give the birds a food source throughout the breeding season, the experts said.

They also act as stepping stones across the landscape for other wildlife such as dragonflies and frogs.

Carl Sayer, of University College London Pond Restoration Group, is also the leader of the Norfolk Ponds Project.

He said: 'The research on birds was inspired by Norfolk farmer Richard Waddingham.

'His constant belief has always been that farming and wildlife can co-exist and with wildlife declining at an alarming rate, at no time in history do we need to make this work more than now.

'Restoring farmland ponds is clearly part of a positive way forward.'

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