Making Space for Nature on the Marlborough Downs
Oases for wildlife
Ponds are a magnet for wildlife, attracting birds, mammals, amphibians, insects and other animals, both those that live and breed in the water and others that use ponds as drinking places.
Visit a pond at dawn or dusk, when the wildlife is most active and you might see farmland birds like the tree sparrow hunting for insects, or catch a glimpse of a fox, deer or hedgehog stopping by for a drink.
Although there may be between 30 to 40 inches of rain per year on the Downs, standing water is a scarce commodity. Dewponds were originally created to provide a source of fresh water for grazing sheep (cattle were excluded as they would damage the lining of the pond). Despite their name, dewponds are actually fed by rainfall and were carefully sited so that water would naturally drain into them.
With the hot dry summers we've had in recent years, access to a reliable clean water source is even more crucial for both livestock and wildlife and we're delighted to say we've been successful in being able to provide just that on members' farms across the Downs.
A necklace of ponds across the Downs
With the decline of widespread sheep farming, almost all the dewponds on the Downs fell into disrepair and, with no natural watercourses, the area gradually became more and more arid until over 60% of the area was without a reliable source of water. We were determined to reverse this process of desertification and between 2012 and 2015, created or restored a total of 16 ponds with the result that today 86% of the land is within a mile of a pond, river or stream.
Traditionally, dewponds were made by ‘puddling’ clay and straw to form a waterproof layer in a natural or man-made hollow. These ponds could last for between 100 to 150 years, or longer if regularly maintained. However, as sheep farming on the Downs declined, the need to maintain the ponds disappeared and many have now vanished back into the landscape.
Rather than clay and straw, our modern dewponds are constructed using butyl liners. These are strong and durable and won’t crack if the ponds dry out in the summer. This combination of traditional methods and modern materials should ensure that the Marlborough Downs ponds hold water for many years to come, even without costly ongoing maintenance.
Our first dewpond was built adjacent to the Ridgeway National Trail above Berwick Bassett. Like all our ponds, Brick-kiln Pond as it's now known, filled up very quickly due to the amount of rain that fell during the summer of 2012. Why not go and see how much water's in it now?
Originally open on all sides we had to fence it in to stop 4x4 enthusiasts using it as an obstacle to negotiate! When they're not around though, it's a tranquil place to contemplate the stunning views and enjoy the wildlife.
Keep your eyes open when you're out and about on the Downs and see how many more of our ponds you can find!
Although we don't have any resources for detailed wildlife surveys of our ponds, we completed a water quality survey over the winter of 2016-17 and found that all our ponds meet drinking water standards in terms of phosphates and nitrates!
Although dewponds are generally imagined to be relatively small and circular, many of ours are 18 x 20 metre rectangles. There are several reasons for this:
Ponds need to be big enough to hold water even in the height of summer when lots is lost due to evaporation.
Liners come on enormous rolls and are ordered by the metre. If we'd cut our strips of liner into circles there would have been a lot of waste and we were aiming to get best value - biggest surface area of water - for our money!
The two very old ponds we restored (The Hanging Pond to the north of Barbury Castle and Kemms Pond on Avebury Down) were both rectangular, so there was a historic precedent.
The wildlife doesn't care whether a pond is round, square, oval or oblong - water is water!