Wildlife ponds

A pond is an attractive feature in any garden and, with a little thought about its design and construction, can also be a haven for wildlife. During the past century, nearly 70 percent of ponds have been lost from the UK countryside, meaning garden ponds and water features have an increased importance for wildlife.

Wildlife ponds

Wildlife ponds

Quick facts

Suitable for All gardens
Timing Autumn-spring
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

Gardens of all sizes can accommodate water features.

Water is essential to wildlife and many creatures will make use of it:

  • Frogs, toads and newts will use even small bodies of water to breed
  • Caddis flies, damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, pond skaters, snails and water beetles breed in water
  • Large ponds will support waterfowl, including mallard ducks, moorhens and coots
  • Birds such as swallows and house martins will pick off insects from above the water surface and use muddy areas for nest building
  • The grey heron can be a regular visitor to even a small pond, feeding on fish and amphibians
  • Even grass snakes may be seen hunting in garden ponds

When to work on wildlife ponds

The wildlife pond will be a pleasure throughout the year but certain times are best for undertaking work.

  • Mid-spring to early summer are the best times for planting, once the water has warmed a little and plants have commenced growth
  • Autumn is the least damaging time for pond maintenance, after the height of the breeding season but before amphibians go into hibernation
  • Autumn and winter are the ideal times for pond construction

How to create wildlife ponds

When setting up or adapting an existing pond for wildlife, there are a few things to consider.

Choose the right feature for your garden

  • Container water features are ideal for courtyard or patio gardens. Stone troughs, old sinks or baths and large, glazed or plastic pots are suitable once drainage holes have been plugged. A minimum water depth of 20-30cm (8in-1ft) allows a few plants to be added. Wooden barrels should be thoroughly rinsed out and made watertight before planting up. Fill with water and keep topping up until the swelling of the wood seals any leaks
  • Where small children are at risk, a bubble fountain or birdbath with only a thin film of water is a safer option that will still attract birds
  • In larger gardens, a range of features can be considered to increase the diversity of wildlife. Formal rills are rather sterile for most aquatic wildlife, but a cascading stream with dedicated planting pockets and drop pools will be much richer in biodiversity
  • Bog gardens can be stand alone features, making good use of a wet site, or can be positioned next to ponds and independently lined

Structural considerations for wildlife

  • Wildlife makes no distinction between natural and man-made ponds provided they are accessible. Shape is crucial: try to incorporate at least one side of the pond with a long, shallow slope. This allows easy access for wildlife and, when water levels fluctuate, creates a damp habitat vital for many beetles, bugs and flies
  • Make steep-sided ponds and water features wildlife friendly by placing a wooden or stone ramp in one corner. Clad the ramp with chicken wire to provide good grip. This allows ducklings, amphibians, birds and unfortunate hedgehogs a way onto dry land. Even frogs and other amphibians can drown if there’s no way out
  • Butyl liners are the easiest way to create a natural-shaped pond; pre-formed plastic or fibreglass ponds without this feature are best avoided
  • For larger, natural ponds consider liners of ‘puddled’ clay or sodium bentonite
  • A layer of cobbles and large flat stones on the sloping side will create a perfect habitats for amphibians and insects
  • Decking over a section of pond will give good wildlife watching opportunities but ensure children are supervised
  • In general, the larger the pond the more wildlife you can expect to attract. A depth of 20-60cm (8in-2ft) varied across the pond will suit the majority of pond flora and fauna
  • Shade over part of the pond helps reduce problems with algae and is tolerated by many pond plants and animals. However, ponds with too much shade are not good for wildlife and should be re-sited or have overhanging vegetation cut back to let in more sunlight
  • Running water is attractive but will evaporate quicker in hot weather than still water

Planting ponds for wildlife

  • You do not have to plant up your pond at all; natural colonisation by plants and wildlife will occur surprisingly quickly, depending on the location of the pond in relation to other ponds
  • However, planting up the pond will give more control over the appearance and is preferred by many. Native plants provide good habitats but some can take over. Exotic ornamentals have value too and can be very attractive but avoid known invasive weeds
  • Dense vegetation on one side of the pond gives cover for wildlife entering or existing the water 
  • Marginal plantings provide important areas of cover and breeding sites. Different marginals prefer different depths of water. To avoid more vigorous species out competing others, create separate planting pockets for them
  • Use floating aquatic plants to achieve 65-75 percent surface coverage, plus some submerged planting (oxygenators)
  • The placing of dead branches into the pond enriches the habitat considerably, as do tree roots growing into the pond. Resist the temptation to remove overhanging branches that naturally dip or fall into the water
  • Avoid introducing fish as they predate on many other forms of pond life (toad tadpoles are safe as they are unpalatable to fish)

Recommended reading

The Pond Book: A Guide to the Management and Creation of Ponds by Williams P., Biggs J., Whitfield M., Thorne A., Bryant S., Fox G., and Nicolet P. (Pond Conservation 2010, ISBN 9780953797110)

This book is made available through the RHS Lindley Library.

How to maintain wildlife ponds

Managing a wildlife pond is very similar to any other pond but with a few additional considerations;

  • Don’t be hasty to top up the pond during dry weather. Seasonal ponds are a natural feature in the UK, filling up in winter and occasionally drying out in summer. This can favour certain animals such as newts which can survive in the mud unlike the fish that predate on their larvae. Where additional water needs to be added try to use rainwater; tap water should be a last resort
  • Weed and algae control. Extensive open water is not essential for a good wildlife pond; most creatures prefer an underwater maze of plants in which to hunt, hide, feed and breed. Where necessary, rake off or pull out vegetation to maintain the 25-35 percent open water optimum. Try to remove vegetation in a wedge shape to avoid removing plants at only one depth. Where algae is excessive, try natural preventative measures such as barley straw
  • Silting up is considered by many to be a bad thing but this natural process can favour wildlife. If sediment removal is necessary to maintain a pond do this in early autumn and try to remove only half at one time in order to minimise the loss of mud-dwelling creatures and their habitat

Problems

There are a few common problems associated with ponds.

Aquatic weeds such as duckweed can smother the surface. Likewise the water can become green or covered in blanket weed when algae takes hold.


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