In my last house, I built a good-sized pond, the precursor to my present one. I intended it purely as a formal feature, with no wildlife objectives whatsoever: we were after all in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by more habitat than you could shake a stick at. The old quarry pond, in particular, was a haven of damsel and dragonflies, birds, bats and invertebrates, that every spring hosted a gathering of frogs that rivaled T in the Park for the crowds, the noise and the shameless behaviour.
Unconcerned therefore with the requirements of any flora or fauna, the pond was built to look the way I wanted, and very happy I was too. The vertical sides of the pond were capped with slate coping stones, extending slightly out over the water to make a neater visual join.
No one anticipated that the local wildlife would be so inexorably drawn to the exciting watery possibilities offered by the new pond that it would, to a frog, overlook its one major flaw. Habitat-wise, if a body of water of uniform depth has sheer vertical sides out of which it is impossible to climb, that ought to be a deal-breaker (unless you have gills). Caveat saltor. Alas, they either didn’t care or didn’t realise until it was too late. Frog after toad after newt flung itself into the pond, followed by their mates, followed in due course by their resulting progeny. There comes a time in the life of every young amphibian when it really wants to venture onto dry land for a bit, and they would climb up the edges where bits of grouting had fallen out, and huddle when they could get no further, miserably, like Marsh Wiggles. I would spend many a pleasantly virtuous afternoon on Newt Rescue (also young toads and froglings, but ‘Newt Rescue’ has a better ring to it), and it was an excellent way of occupying visiting children. I would also fish out adult toads and, with the youngsters, relocate them to the gently sloping sides of the quarry pond, but the adult frogs and newts were usually too quick for me.
If things had only stopped there. Amphibians can handle being in water a couple more days than they’d ideally like. Mammals cannot. I had no idea of the sheer number and variety of small furry animals surrounding us until I found their little corpses bobbing in the water: field mice; wood mice; voles; shrews. No moles (but they are powerful swimmers anyway), and on a number of occasions, a rabbit (I found the silver lining). And on one awful, awful day, a hedgehog. It started to prey on me to the extent that I would leap out of bed in the morning to dash down to the pond, hoping against hope that nothing would be in it or that if there were I would still be in time to save it. Some mornings it was like rodent Won Ton soup. During the day, my attention would snap to the slightest ripple on the pond, in case it were a creature in distress. Which is pretty much what I had become.
The more practically minded among you will be wondering why we didn’t just build ramps. We did, and they did seem to reduce the casualties a little bit (you have to build them solid all the way down with no gap at the side so that the animal, paddling its way around the sides of the pond, can’t inadvertently swim underneath the ramp and miss the opportunity to escape), but they completely and utterly ruined the look of pond.
I learned two important lessons from the old pond. Firstly, that every pond of any size or any style must have an inbuilt animal escape route. And secondly, that rain falling on water in a formal setting is a mesmerizingly beautiful sight (but few people have either the time or the inclination to stand in rapt appreciation at the bottom of their garden under an umbrella, so build it within view of the windows).
The new pond – while just as formal as the old one – was thus designed from the outset with one shallow side, incorporating a pebbled ‘beach’ that rises gently out of the water and leads without interruption into the bed between the stepping stones and the wall of the house.
While this solution would not work everywhere for design reasons, there is always the opportunity to fashion at least one escape route by installing a short pipe leading to freedom beside the overflow. You would need to check it manually on a fairly regular basis and poke about to remove any blockages, but if you forgot the first casualty would serve as a mortifying reminder.
Our pond had been filled since April this year, and – do I dare write this? – nothing has drowned in it yet. Typically, after that sentence, tomorrow morning I will look out at the pond and and see the bloated corpses of a badger, a pine marten and a couple of red squirrel. With a barn owl thrown in, for good measure.