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 play an increasingly important role for wildlife.
A living pond
Wildlife can make use of many types of pond and water feature, from a simple drinking source to a thriving habitat for multiple species, complete with its own ecosystem. Discover more about which pond or water feature is right for you in our water habitats page.
Do I need to add the wildlife?
No. Wildlife can find a new pond surprisingly quickly. Pondlife such as pond skaters and diving beetles can arrive within a few days or weeks, and damselflies and amphibians could easily be on the scene within the first year. It might be tempting to move frogspawn, pond sediment or even pond water from one pond to another but this is not a good idea as it can inadvertently introduce disease or invasive species.
Who might use my wildlife pond?
- 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 – who are excellent swimmers – may be seen hunting in garden ponds
Shine a torch into your pond after dark in early summer to see if you can spot any newts
Getting started with your wildlife pond
If you’re creating a new pond, follow our step-by-step guide to pond construction. Autumn and winter are ideal times to do this.
Building a new pond for wildlife
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. If you are making a container pond which isn’t sunk into the ground, be sure to fix a ramp of some sort on the outside of the container, as well as the inside.
Wildlife makes no distinction between natural and man-made ponds provided they are accessible. 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.
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. But don’t despair if you only have a small space: even a mini pond in a pot will provide a habitat and water source for garden wildlife.
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 so ensure at least part of the pond is in full sun. This will ensure the water warms quickly in spring, making it more attractive to spawning frogs and toads.
Here are step-by-step guides on building a wildlife friendly container or rain-fed pond:
Rain-fed wildlife-friendly pond step-by-step
Wildlife container pond step-by-step
Adapting an existing pond for wildlife
Existing ponds not specifically designed for wildlife can be adapted. Autumn is the least damaging time for making changes, after the height of the breeding season but before amphibians go into hibernation.
Fish are top predators in a garden pond and will also contribute to nutrient levels, making the pond prone to algae and blanketweed. So if you have inherited a pond with lots of fish, see if you can find them a new home in a fish pond or, if that’s not possible, why not make a new pond elsewhere in the garden which you can design more for wildlife in mind.
Pumps and filters
If your pond had fish in, chances are it would also have had a pump and filter system to help keep the water clear. A wildlife pond does not need a filter but you may still wish to keep the pump to run a cascade or fountain, for instance. Check to see if your pump has a ‘wildlife protection system’ to prevent casualties from tadpoles, newts and other pondlife being sucked up into it.
If the pond has steep sides, one option is to build up stones or pebbles on at least one side of the pond to allow creatures easy access. Another solution is to fit a wooden ramp at one edge, cut with grooves or covered in chicken wire for grip. Or, for a more natural look, part submerge a large branch or log. This may need weighting down to keep one end below the water line.
Other general tips
Drinking spot for big and small
A layer of gravel, mud or large flat stones on the sloping side will create a perfect habitat for amphibians and insects. It also allows birds, hedgehogs and smaller insects such as honeybees and hornets to drink without risk of falling in the water.
Hiding a liner and softening edges
The water line in a wildlife pond will naturally fluctuate but as it drops this can expose an unsightly pond liner. One way to overcome this is to use gravel or pebbles as described above. But an alternative is to buy a ‘stone liner’ which has a layer of gravel embedded in the top. This can be bonded to the pond line around the perimeter to help disguise it.
Another method is to butt turf up to and over the edge of the pond rim. This can look very natural but it doesn’t take long for the grass and grass roots to grow right into the water. The wicking action can draw water out of the pond at a surprising rate, especially in hot weather. For this reason it is sensible to stop the turf short of the edge and use an alternative liner cover. Or keep it regularly trimmed back from the water’s edge.
A pond doesn’t just work in isolation – it is part of a network of habitats around your garden. Help wildlife move between these areas by letting grass grow along one edge of the pond (tall grass gives perfect cover for young toads and frogs leaving the pond at the end of the season), growing some denser shrubs at one side (so birds can approach the pond safely with cover from predators such as sparrow hawks) and keeping at least one section of the pond perimeter open and sunny to allow for basking reptiles such as grass snakes.
Decking over a section of pond will give good wildlife watching opportunities but ensure children are supervised
Planting ponds for wildlife
You do not have to plant up your pond at all; natural colonisation by plants will occur though its speed and the variety of plants will depend on the location of the pond in relation to other ponds.
While letting nature do the planting is a fascinating process, many gardeners will want to give it a hand. Mid-spring to early summer are the best times for planting, once the water has warmed a little and plants have commenced growth. Native plants provide good habitats but some can take over so check carefully that the plant is right for your size of pond or water feature. Exotic ornamentals have value too and can be very attractive but avoid known invasive aquatic weeds.
What should I plant in my wildlife pond?
- Underwater plants for cover. Oxygenators such as hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) or water starwort (Callitriche autumnalis) give tadpoles and other larvae plenty of underwater cover from predators.
- Plants that poke up out of the water for emerging larvae. Include plants such as water iris (Iris ensata) whose stems emerge through the water; these will be the perfect spot for damselfly and dragonfly larvae to crawl up when they are ready to turn into adults.
- Floating plants for resting stations. Use plants such as waterlily (Nymphaea) or water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos) for pondlife to rest on and to help shade the water in summer.
- Pollinator-friendly marginal plantings. Good examples include lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula), flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) to attract bees and hoverflies in summer
Pre-planted coir logs or mats
Some suppliers offer coir logs or mats pre-planted with native pond plants such as soft rush (Juncus effusus), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus). These are great for anchoring to bare margins of new wildlife ponds or even stream or river banks if your garden happens to back onto these. Establishing plants in a pond with a flat rim and very steep sides is a challenge but it is possible to suspend planting pouches over the lip of a formal pond, securing them with a large stone to stop them from falling in.
How to maintain wildlife ponds
Here are some pointers on managing your pond for wildlife;
- Topping up. 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. If you do need to do some removal don’t remove too much at once. Leaving the vegetation on the edge of the pond to allow pondlife to escape back into the water is often recommended but sadly many creatures stay trapped regardless
- Silting up. 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
- Cutting back. If you have allowed the grass to grow long along one edge of the pond, strim it off and mow it in late autumn after young amphibians have had chance to exit the pond. And delay cutting back marginals until late winter to help give maximum protection for invertebrates
- Removing leaves. Don’t be too worried if a few leaves fall into your pond as there is little evidence this is bad for pondlife. However, if autumn leaf fall is excessive rake or fish out some with a net before they sink to the bottom
Wild About Gardens guide “Big or small, ponds for all” – a download pdf
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.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.