SOME years ago, I drove down into deepest Cheshire to interview a man who didn’t like being interviewed: the Duke of Westminster, close friend of Prince Charles and at the time – according to the gossip columns – the richest man in England.
He hated that sort of publicity and although he owned a sizeable chunk of the most expensive properties in London’s Mayfair, he preferred life down on the farm at his Eaton estate in the lush Cheshire pasture lands and he had agreed to talk to me about, amongst other things, ponds!
Village pond, rare survivor
He has just spent a very large sum of money (he wouldn’t say how much but I’ll wager it ran into millions) in restoring the large estate into a vision of how rural England once looked and, as a result, he had won a major national conservation award of which he was very proud.
One of the features that had gained him that prize was the restoration of several “duck ponds” which had been drained and filled in the years following World War 11 when farmers were being paid very large grants to squeeze every ounce of food production out of their land.
This was just one of the intensive farming measures which, in the long term, were to have disastrous consequences for the English landscape and its fauna and flora. It included the grubbing up of thousands of miles of hedgerows, a disaster for millions of birds, insects and wild plants, and the large-scale draining of peat bogs which today is accepted as a major cause of flooding.
Little has been written about the death of the humble duck pond, whether it be on a village green or in a farmer’s meadow, because its main purpose for centuries had been as a water supply for livestock and, in the villages, horses passing through – like the much photographed pond at Rylstone here in the Yorkshire Dales.
This was their raison d’être but the additional benefits they provided in the countryside were enormous. They became an oasis for wildlife in scores of species, they harboured majestic trees like the willow and plants like the bulrush, and they were a natural playground for country children in the days when you made your own fun rather than having it manufactured for you electronically.
My childhood was spent largely in three large meadows, two of which had ponds and the third being dissected by a stream. The ponds supported not just ducks but water hens and coots. Round the margins lurked frogs and toads, and under water there were stickle backs and newts.
In summer, the air around these ponds hummed with the song of myriad insects, some of which were hunted down by big dragon flies and swallows swooping so low that they could take a drink as they skimmed the surface, leaving behind a tiny wake.
In the winter, they froze hard and we made slides on them or even crossed them at the end of our sledging run (an act of folly, I admit, and one which now fills me with horror but winters were harder then and, as a result, the ice was thicker).
I hope our landowners will take the advice and build themselves a few new
Literally hundreds of thousands of these ponds were filled in during the intensive farming boom in the middle decades of the 20th Century and now the water hen and coot are rare. And what modern youngster has had the thrill of lifting a newt in the fishing net?
All these thoughts came to mind this week when the Environment Agency issued a new booklet advising farmers and landowners on how to build themselves a new reservoir (See News, Wednesday). In these days of climate change it seems impossible for forecast flood or drought with any accuracy and in some areas, water is becoming a precious resource.
In this respect, we are pretty lucky here in the Yorkshire Dales because our aquifers deep in the limestone are just about as good as you can get as natural reservoirs. But we can still suffer drought in extreme years and the law of averages suggests we are due for one soon.
So I hope our landowners will take the advice and build themselves a few new ponds, even if they call them reservoirs. I want to see the bulrushes back, watch dragon flies on the hunt, and take my three-year-old grandson on a stickleback quest. And if it keeps the livestock watered, too, that’s my idea of a win-win situation.