Ponds have huge environmental and wildlife value. They are also an excellent way to have encounters with wildlife.

Tips for building a pond

Size is not critical for wildlife pond, but bigger is better

  • Larger ponds are more stable. Changes in temperature, oxygen etc. will happen more gradually.
  • More places for wildlife to hide.

Depth can be important in places which get particularly cold in winter.

  • Check locally, 50cm is often more than enough to prevent freezing top-bottom which would affect fish and larger wildlife

Try to have the pond part shaded.

  • Reduces temperature swings
  • Reduce growth of algae which can quickly take over in new ponds
  • Not directly under a tree
    • Fallen leaves can add too many nutrients and trigger blooms of algae. 
    • Decay can draw lots of oxygen from water which can affect larger animals.

In-ground vs raised

  • Raised ponds are more accessible
  • Depending on height of edge can be used even by very young children
    • ~50cm is a good minimum height
  • Use study border, not just any raised bed.
    • Strong enough to sit on
    • Wide enough rim to be able to put specimen trays and charts.
  • In-ground ponds are more natural looking
    • Can be bigger
    • Easier to host wider range of wildlife, can be accessed by amphibians
      • Raised pond can be accessed by amphibians if they are provided a planted bank up one edge of the pond.
    • Access area needs to be considered
      • Planted banks are not good. Plants trampled, becomes muddy,  can become slippery
      • Gravel banks better, less messy, less slippery for people
        • Gravel will work its way into the pond
      • Mix of gravels, larger, flat rocks, even better
        • Kids will tend to stand on the larger flat stones
          • More stable, less gravel slippage into the pond
          • Choose rough large stones for more grip
      • Decking probably provides best access
        • If extended into the pond can allow access to deeper areas 
        • Kids won’t trample plants or get muddy
        • Less likely to become slippery
        • Decking should be only slightly higher than the maximum height of pond

Safety

Data from Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

  • Risk of drowning in ponds is extremely low
  • Overall garden ponds are as risky as bathtubs
  • Most at risk for ponds were 1 and 2 year olds

Supervision of very young children is the best safety precaution

  • Spend time with young children around ponds supporting development of motor skills and demonstrating how to evaluate risk

Design your pond to minimize risk. – Most of the risk from bodies of water come from being very deep as can be the case in lakes and reservoirs, or having very fast flow as a river with spring melt.

  • Shallow enough that a child can stand up and walk out if they fall in will vastly reduce risks
  • Sloped edges mean you step into shallow water rather than fall into deeper water
  • Coarse or large gravel on the bottom will not have the sticky effect of soil-like substrates

Fencing – In the UK there is no requirement to fence off a pond. Check your local regulations.

  • Fencing can produce its own hazards
    • Standing on railing could mean kids fall from a higher height
    • Fences can prevent help from reaching someone who has fallen in or prevent them from easily getting out
    • Can create false sense of security (Sitting on fence is riskier than sitting on the deck)
  • Mesh coverings/grates
    • Can produce own hazards
      • Falling onto the grate could cause injury
      • Damaged grating or mesh could become risk for trapping feet/fingers
      • False sense of security, encouraging riskier behaviour such as walking on the grating
    • Makes using pond more difficult, less likely to actually use it at all

Diseases – Infections can occur from contact with untreated water as in a wildlife pond. Practice good hygiene and risk is extremely low.

  • Apply waterproof plasters/bandages to open wounds on hands
  • Wash hands with soap and water after using the pond
  • Weil’s disease is the most commonly cited zoonotic risk in the UK, bacterial infection transmitted by rat urine, but 1996-2006 never more than 60 cases in a year so risk is extremely low. (Risk is greater in tropical or subtropical areas)

Mosquitos

  • Addition of a fountain or pump to provide water circulation will reduce mosquito breeding
  • Add fish

Plants and wildlife

  • Most insects and wildlife will arrive quite quickly on their own
  • Small native freshwater fish can be added a few months after first setting up a pond.
    • If your pond is well designed, and not overstocked, fish will not eat everything. Make sure you have planted submerged plants with lots of leaves. These are often sold as oxygenating plants.
    • You should not need to feed the fish. Doing so will add significant nutrients to the pond and produce algal grown and foul smells from more fish waste than the invertebrates can handle.
  • Frogs and newts will arrive on their own if your area is suitable for them
    • If your pond is in the ground, ensure some areas of the margin are planted and left undisturbed. This will allow wildlife quiet corridors to access the pond and to take shelter when kids are investigating the area
    • Do not import frogs from other ponds. This can spread diseases. 
    • If amphibians do not arrive on their own the surrounding area is probably not suitable for them, and young frogs will likely not survive after leaving the pond.

Topics to start with

Habitats – Involve kids in the design process. All the components of the habitat, and what conditions animals and plants need to thrive.

Microhabitats – Pond invertebrates are often strongly associated with particular areas of a pond. Well orchestrated pond dips can yield strong differences between different areas.

Classification – Can be more difficult than using terrestrial habitats. Pond invertebrates tend to be much smaller, making it more difficult to pick out key characteristics. Most common pond invertebrates are young insects.

Measuring and mapping – Larger in-ground ponds with organic shapes will require many measurements around the perimeter to create accurate maps. Established ponds may be visible from satellite or aerial footage. 

  • Discuss pros and cons of working manually vs aerial imagery
    • Vegetation getting in the way
    • Get better feel for conditions around the pond mapping in-person
    • What conditions can be identified from aerial images? What requires in-person investigation?

Art – Ponds often have soft edges because of the planting, and lend themselves to pastels or watercolours. 

  • Landscapes, impressionism
  • Pond plants are also often very vigorous and recover well from being picked. Collected material can be used as references for portraits of plants and their parts
  • Botanical illustration, technical drawing

Teaching tips

  • Familiarity will help a lot in figuring out if your pond will be suitable for a topic. Do your own pond dip and see what is most common.
  • If the groups you work with do not regularly use a pond, allowing 5 minutes to explore and be excited, within reason, helps get that energy out
  • If classes tend not to use ponds or find live creatures often, structured collection from specific microhabitats can be very difficult to orchestrate.
    • Those who collect from the top of the pond in open water tend not to find much and can be disappointed.
  • If going for structured collection, direct kids to ‘high yield’ areas 
    • Plants, bottom of pond, whole water column
  • Close observation in containers can yield a lot of good information
    • Observed behaviour in containers tends to be similar behaviour to that would be seen in the habitat. 
    • Allows for thinking about microhabitats without needing to limit kids to collecting from small areas
      • Animals which cling to plants in the containers tend cling to plants in the pond
      • Animals which remain at the bottom of a container tend to be bottom dwelling in the pond
  • Reserve highly structured surveying for older students or groups which work with live creatures more frequently
    • Excitement will need to come from curiosity to learn details about the habitat
    • If the group is not used to working in natural spaces may be more beneficial and productive to plan for them to be doing more freeform exploration

Questions or comments?

Email : knowingnaturepodcast@gmail.com

Twitter: @kn_podcast

Intro/Outro music: Selfish by Derek Clegg. Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 US License

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