Farmers can help restore life to Norfolk’s 23,000 ponds, says Carl Sayer of the Norfolk Ponds Project
- Credit: Chris Hill
Farmers have a crucial role to play in restoring the wildlife potential of Norfolk's 23,000 ponds, according to an award-winning aquatic conservationist. CHRIS HILL reports.
Walking alongside a barley field towards one of Norfolk's restored farmland ponds, no explanation is really necessary about its benefits to wildlife.
The frogs leaping out of the pathway and dragonflies buzzing overhead tell their own story.
Nevertheless, an award-winning conservationist hopes to convince more farmers to take this 'no-brainer' opportunity to improve biodiversity on their land, with minimum disruption to productive agriculture.
This particular aquatic oasis is one of ten ponds on the Heydon Estate, near Reepham, to have been restored by the Norfolk Ponds Project, prompting a resurgence in plant, insect, amphibian and bird life.
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The project is led by Carl Sayer, who won an 'outstanding achievement' honour earlier this month at the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership's Community Biodiversity Awards 2017.
Dr Sayer said he was inspired by a love of waterways and fishing while growing up in Bodham, near Holt, and is now a reader in geography at University College London (UCL), lecturing students on aquatic conservation.
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But he said there were good reasons why his is own studies are still centred on his home county.
'I spend a lot of time here in Norfolk because all of my research is here,' he said. 'It is one of the driest counties, but because it is so low-lying there is higher aquatic diversity here than anywhere else in the UK, without a doubt. We have at least 23,000 ponds, as well as the Broads and chalk rivers, all linked together. We have got so much here and there is so much to save, as there is still much more to be done.
'Farmland ponds allow you to balance farming and conservation, because you are not losing a lot of land as they are not farmable anyway.
'We have done about 30 in Norfolk so far, but we can only do so much with the little funding we have.
'But they can be done through agri-environment schemes and it is a great thing for a farmer to do for wildlife. You can do this work at a low time after the harvest, and it is really just putting back old practices which would have been done in the past, only now we're doing it for conservation.
'That is why I am pushing it. It is conservation with very little loss of land, so it is a no-brainer.'
Dr Sayer said the restoration at Heydon was a 'typical scenario' of a farmland pond which had been neglected in the last 50 years as changes in farming practices meant it was no longer required to water cattle or cool down agricultural equipment.
'These farmland ponds have overgrown since the 1960s, when the main reason for having them disappeared,' he said. 'So what we do as part of the Norfolk Ponds Project is to remove the scrub on the south and east sides, leaving some trees on the north. Sometimes we remove quite a of mud as well.
'In the next year they turn from dank, oxygen-poor water to really clear water, full of plants and wildlife.
'We get dragonflies, butterflies and amphibians like great crested newts, frogs and toads. These are species which need our help on farmland.
'The other thing we have found through our work at UCL is the benefit of these ponds as a food source or farmland birds. They are multi-functional for all sorts of things.'
The Norfolk Ponds Project is a partnership including UCL, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) and the Norfolk Rivers Trust.
The project was modelled on the pond conservation work undertaken by Richard Waddingham at Manor Farm in Briston, and Dr Sayer – who is also a founding member of the River Glaven Conservation Group – praised the many other local conservationists, countrymen and volunteers who he had worked with and taken inspiration from, describing them as 'the unsung heroes'.
ABOUT NORFOLK'S PONDS
Norfolk has more than 23,000 ponds, more than any other English county.
Many are on farmland, where they have suffered neglect or even been filled in during the last 50 years, which have left them threatened by encroachment from trees and bushes, pollution and invasive species.
In north Norfolk, many ponds have their origins as 17th-19th century marl pits, used to provide a lime-rich clay to improve soils for crops, while the pits of south Norfolk provided unfired 'clay lump' for traditional buildings. As the pits filled with water they were used for other purposes including livestock watering, fishing and the cooling of early agricultural equipment.
Since the 1970s, with the loss of these traditional reasons for managing ponds, many have become overgrown by trees and bushes, damaging the aquatic diversity.
Restored ponds are a home for many farmland species including stoneworts, pondweeds, dragonflies, great crested newt and crucian carp, while farmland birds like yellowhammers, bramblings, bullfinches, whitethroats and linnets also benefit from open ponds in the landscape.