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A rebirth for a forgotten rural gem: the farm pond?

Friday 25 July 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard recalls memories of dragon flies and sticklebacks, newts and dragon flies - and welcomes efforts to bring them back to life

THERE were several developments of grave importance to our rural future this week - some of them with deep political implications - but rather than go into that, I want to write about something truly important: duck ponds.

The Government has announced plans for a huge boost in wind-turbine electricity generation from wind farms based out at sea, which is good. A government enquiry reported that there was little evidence of GM crops being of danger to humans, which - after BSE and all the other food scandals - is bad.

But what took my imagination came from a group of farmers and landowners in the Lancaster region who have launched a campaign for changes in the 1975 Reservoirs Act so that they would be encouraged to store more water on their own land, thus taking the strain of the national water grid in times of draught.

They want the changes made because, surprise, surprise, there is so much red-tape surrounding the Act that farmer and landowner can't be bothered to go to the trouble and expense of building new reservoirs.

And that took me straight back to the days of my childhood, when the summers were always hot (or so it seemed) and our childhood play often centred around the duck ponds which existed in almost ever field for miles around.

These ponds had their own characters. Some were good for catching newts in jam jars on the end of a piece of twine. On others, moorhens or coots nested. They were always brimming with frog or toad spawn in the spring and they could hold a surprising head of fish.

I caught my first sticklebacks in a jam jar on one of these. When I graduated to a bent pin and a maggot, I could get a rudd and sometimes even a small perch. A friend boasted he had caught a jack pike in one but we never believed him: fishermen start telling their stories very young.

But these ponds were more than amusement arcades for kids. They were home to dozens of plants like bull-rushes, which you rarely see these days, and scores of insects, particularly damselflies and dragon flies.

These filled the summer days with colour and not a little fear: the bigger species could inflict a bite strong enough to kill a horse, older children told us. That was another fishermen's tale with a different species - but I didn't know that for years.

Then along came the dreaded MAFF, with its obsession for dragging every last ounce of production for the land, despite any ecological damage, and the farm pond was doomed.

It is well known MAFF officials encouraged farmers to grub up thousands of miles of hedgerow - some of it up to 600 years old - which was one of the biggest disasters ever to hit British wildlife, song birds in particular.

It is hardly known at all that, at the same time, tens of thousands of ponds were drained and filled in, just to make that extra few square yards for more grazing or arable crops to add to the mountains and lakes of unwanted food that were already growing under the Common Agricultural Policy.

One of the first men to spot this was the Duke of Westminster, who just over a decade ago won a major national award for conservation work on his huge Eaton estate near Chester.

The Duke, who rarely speaks to the Press, showed me round because he was so happy to have won that award. And his pride and joy amongst dozens of improvements: dozens of ponds which he had recreated in their old positions as shown on old maps of the estate.

Now the duke, one of the richest men in Britain, could afford to invest large sums of time and money into a massive conservation project. Today's farmers can't unless, as members of the North West branch of the Country Land and Business Association are asking, grants are provided under the Rural Enterprise Scheme.

A good test, this, of DEFRA's real intentions when it comes to implementing its much heralded policy of turning British agriculture back to older, more sustainable, practices. It should act to encourage more farm reservoirs. We shall see...

Your views:

  • I have excavated the mill pond and it is teaming with wildlife; frogs, dragon flies and yes FISH. I put bream, roach, tench and the odd small perch in, a couple of hundred minnows and created 4 islands for the ducks to be safe on, a swimm runs up the centre for shelter for animals and fish alike.

    I love it, the place is so much more tranquil and calming now. I watch the shoals of fish swim past, next year I will be able to fish my own lake, brilliant.

    Ady Green - Ickornshaw



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