by Georgette and Ali Taylor, Cambridgeshire
We’ve been volunteering for Froglife at Hampton Nature Reserve for over three years now, but it was only last year that we finally started to
find out about the dragonflies that we’d been spotting. Paul, the warden, set up two training sessions given by Henry and Lynn Curry of the British Dragonfly Society (BDS). The first was somewhat daunting – so many dragonflies, and the distinctions between them so hard to remember! But somehow, by the second session, something had clicked. Whether it was seeing our first brown hawker, which we spotted while surveying for water voles, or glimpsing some of the skimmers, chasers and damselflies that abound in Hampton during the summer I
don’t know, but we were totally bitten by the dragonfly bug.
We’re lucky enough to have dragonflies visiting our garden. Even before we knew what they were, we’d seen darters and damselflies around the garden, and last year, armed with quantities of field guides and rapidly growing identification abilities, we were able to identify large red, blue tailed and common blue damselflies, as well as common and ruddy darters and even a number of migrant hawkers, one of which took to roosting overnight in the jasmine (see photo). So we decided to try to make our garden a little more dragonfly friendly… and that meant a new pond.
The original pond wasn’t ideal, being located in the darkest and coolest part of the garden. Frogs do frequent this pond though we’ve never had frogspawn in it, it’s more of a frog hangout pond than a breeding pond. It was desperately in need of an overhaul, being full of detritus and overwhelmed by one humungous plant. We mentioned our intention to our friends, fellow Hampton volunteers Phil and Keith, and they
generously offered to come and help us dig it. So an extra curricular volunteering session was arranged for late January 2011!
Fortunately, the day we chose was dry, snow-free and the ground wasn’t too frozen to dig. We’d planned out the shape and size of the pond in advance, with guidance from the BDS leaflet on digging ponds for dragonflies. The pond was designed with shallow ledges along the south and east facing edges and we planned to bank up the same sides to provide both shelter and basking spots for our hoped-for residents. We made sure that there is a wide shallow bank to allow anything that gets into the pond to get out again – this was particularly important as we’d been caring for three juvenile hedgehogs over the winter and we were conscious that when they were released in the spring we didn’t want them to fall into the pond and be unable to get out. Hedgehogs can swim, and indeed climb surprisingly well, but they can drown in ponds that do not provide easy routes for egress.
We got most of the pond dug in one day. A great deal of hard work was done, fuelled by lunch and cakes and copious amounts of tea. It
was hugely satisfying and great fun – far better than hiring a digger! We lined the pond a couple of weeks later (although given that one of us took the measurements in centimetres while stating them as inches, we had sufficient liner to cover most of the garden! The excess was donated to Froglife). We didn’t, I have to admit, conform to best practice and we did fill it with tap water. In retrospect, however, if we’d tried to wait for rainfall to fill it, we’d still have a dry hole in the ground – we’ve had a total of three days of rain since we filled it. We also put thin layers of the turf we had removed from the pond upside down in the shallower parts of the pond to form a substrate for future planting. This was suggested in one of our pond books, although we’re uncertain whether it would be regarded as a good idea by all. It doesn’t seem to have caused any particular problems, and the inclusion of a ready made substrate has meant that the bright scarlet non-biting midge larvae have been able to
settle in quickly, building tiny tubes out of which they occasionally poke.
It’s been fascinating to watch all the life that has gradually appeared, who knows where from, in the water. I now understand those early natural philosophers who believed in spontaneous generation.
We also landscaped the edge of the pond, creating a large bank along the south facing side out of the earth we extracted from the ground. Logs, slates, rocks and turf have also been used to try and create different habitats for wildlife – shaded, damp and safe areas for amphibians and basking and resting spots for dragonflies.
One thing that took a little time was getting plants to put in the pond, but we’ve now added marsh marigold, water mint and brooklime, plus a water lily which is gradually coming to the surface at last. The plan is to try to line the edges of the pond with a mixture of wild flowers and a variety of grasses, reeds and rushes to try to create a dense, safe and sheltered environment for amphibians as well as invertebrates.
We’ve been slightly stymied by the sheer lack of rain, however. This area is known for being one of the driest in the UK, and it is certainly living up to its name this spring. And our village seems to have its own microclimate which ensures that, even when it is pouring all around the
fens, we remain under a sort of hole in the cloud, staying completely dry! So the water level is going down somewhat alarmingly at the moment. We are keen not to top it up with tap water, though, and hopefully the rain will come soon.
So far, the pond has been relatively successful – a frog has taken up residence in the log cave (and occasionally in the pond itself), and our garden birds seem to be delighted with it. The water has become positively soupy with water fleas and we’ve spotted water beetles, backswimmers, pond skaters and pond snails. We’ve also got millions of the inevitable mosquito larvae, as well as the previously mentioned non biting midge larvae, which is very pleasing as some of these may well provide a food source to entice some of our hoped for
dragonflies to the pond. One thing we didn’t count on was the appearance of ducks – we were astonished to find that the pond had acquired two mallards who had clearly spotted it from the air and landed to investigate. They spent a little time poking around at the plants, and in the mud around the shallow edges, and even swam serenely across the surface a couple of times, but eventually decided, I think, that it is probably not really big enough for them. This is likely to have been a good thing really as the dog was showing rather too much interest.
It’s early in the season for dragonflies as yet, and so far we haven’t seen any in the garden, but we are hopeful…