Wildlife Watering Holes

If someone told you that there was a wonderfully easy way to increase the amount of wildlife in your garden by a very large percentage, both in terms of quantity and the number of different species you would see, you would probably be very keen to find out all about it.  Not only would this one simple change bring birds and mammals you hadn’t seen before to your garden, but many new creatures could be tempted to set up home and breed there also.  Sounds interesting?  Well there certainly is an easy way to make your garden an absolute wildlife paradise, and that is to create a wildlife pond.

Water is important to wildlife from every group – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.  The knock-on effect of having all these extra creatures in your garden, especially the invertebrates, is tremendous.  If swallows and martins for instance are seen only infrequently over your garden, water will soon provide insect food for them, as tiny creatures hatching from the water create a vital link in the food chain that makes your garden a special habitat. 

Creating a large wildlife pond can be a major undertaking and not all of us have sufficient space for a substantial pool, but here’s the good news.  Water of any sort will bring wildlife to your garden.  I recently had two grey wagtails bobbing about in a tiny barrel pond outside my back door, searching for insects amongst the floating plants which practically fill it up (and plants are a crucial part of any watery habitat you may be considering).  They were so delighted with this tiny wetland that they visited every day at the same time for about a week, sitting on the roof of the house and paddling in the mini-pond on their way to and fro from who knows where.  Other birds use this water for drinking and bathing, from tiny blue tits and wrens to larger species such as blackbirds and thrushes.  So clearly water is vital, and there doesn’t have to be masses of it for it to be effective at attracting wildlife.

If you do have the space for a larger pond you may have to first think about the safety aspects of open water in your garden.  Ponds with mesh covers, designed to make them safe when there are small children around, are not good for wildlife, as these covers restrict access to birds, mammals and amphibians.  If you are concerned about safety, you could create your pond in an area that can be securely fenced.  Make use of the added shelter by covering your fence with native climbers such as hops, honeysuckle and ivy, or wildlife-friendly non-native wall shrubs.  Cotoneaster will provide berries for bird, Ceonothus and open centred climbing roses are good insect attractants and in milder districts an ornamental grape could provide food and nest sites for birds.   Supervise your young visitors well when they are near the water but don’t deny them the pleasure of pond dipping.

Choosing the correct spot for your pond is important.  Full sun is recommended by many books, but my preference is always to choose a spot with a little shade, either from a building or shrubs that do not have a heavy leaf fall.  A few leaves in a wildlife pond will do no harm, in fact they help to create a layer of humus in the bottom into which oxygenators and other plants can root, and this muddy layer houses aquatic creatures of all kinds.  A pond in full sun is always likely to have problems with blanket weed as strong sunlight and warm water encourage the growth of algae of all kinds.  If a very sunny spot is your only option, make sure that you include plenty of aquatic plants for the deep water, especially lilies.  These help to shade the water and reduce the amount of heat and light reaching it.  A sunny spot will attract plenty of dragonflies and damselflies but the key to a well balanced pond is to find a place that is light, but not in direct sunshine all day.

Once you have chosen your pond location you can get digging!  If you have turf to remove, set it aside as it will be useful later.  Define your preferred shape with coloured string, or even a hosepipe to get a feel for how it will look in relation to other features round about.  Go for a simple outline – an oval or kidney form is easier to line than a more complicated shape plus it will look more natural.  A maximum depth of about a metre is good, but not essential, and the majority of the pond can be less than this.  I always include ledges around most of the edge as these are good places to plant marginal species to give a natural appearance.  Bear in mind that the popular ‘saucer’ shape will lose water quickly if you have turf around the margin, as water will be drawn out of the pond into the surrounding soil.  This is great if you want a boggy area all around, but you will forever be topping the pond up. Ledges help to prevent this effect.

One gently sloping edge is essential to allow wildlife to reach the water in safety.  Hedgehogs and foxes will visit to drink and birds will bathe here if the water is shallow and accessible.  Once you are happy with the shape, measure up for the liner.  I find it easiest to use a flexible tape and run it from one edge across to the opposite side, making sure it lays on the bottom and sides of the hole.  Do the same in the other direction, add a bit extra for the edges and you have your liner size.  Go for the best liner you can afford, but even a cheaper woven polythene one will make a wonderful pond.  Several companies do good mail order pond liners but bear in mind that the larger the pond the heavier the liner – you may need friends to help you move it!

Lining the pond is common sense.  Use an underlay to protect the liner from sharp stones, place it into the hole without dragging if you can, and then use the turf you have saved, or stone free garden soil to cover as much of it as possible.  This will provide a substrate into which your plants can be pushed especially on the ledges, once the water is in.  Lilies and oxygenators should be in the deeper water – you could use baskets for these if you wish.  You may prefer to choose native plants, but non-natives are fine.  The key to a good wildlife pond is to have plenty of plants of all types; marginals, oxygenators, plants with floating leaves and spiky emergent plants will all add to your watery habitat.  Variety is more important than sticking rigidly to natives.  Do though, at all costs, avoid the invasive species that are causing so many problems, especially New Zealand Stonecrop (Crassula helmsii).  Water is the next priority.  Tap water is likely to be the only resource you have, but making a pond in February or March when rainwater may fill it naturally, is a real advantage.

Once you have your basic pond, there is much to find out about maintaining and improving it.  A book on the subject, or information from the internet will give you the confidence to forge ahead.  Your local wildlife will benefit by you providing just about the best wildlife habitat you can for them.  Frogs, toads, newts, birds, bats, hedgehogs, grass snakes, dragonflies and a host of other creatures, may all be appearing in your garden in the near future.

© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017