Country Notes

Hunting ghost ponds

The loss of a rich wildfowl habitat.

The old Norfolk gamekeeper, who was sitting next to me in the Land Rover, shifted uncomfortably and adjusted his hearing aid. “Right, about this pond. There are ponds. There are plenty of ponds but they’re all overgrown. I can show you them. But to be honest it’s a waste of time.”

Some months previously, the same gamekeeper had told me that over the years, it had frustrated him immensely that all the duck ponds on the estate had been neglected. What they needed, he reckoned, was a bit of love. They needed somebody to cut back the willows and dig out some of that sludge.

But regrettably, my suggestion that I could be that person was going down badly. Seemingly, the only thing worse than the old ponds not being loved by anybody was somebody wanting to love them.

We drove through the village in silence. It was a cold early June morning. Rooks wheeled in the sky over the church, and light rain blew across the windshield. “June is it?” he said as we passed the old school. “Feels more like March.”

With no insects to feed on, a ghost pond is no home for dragonflies and no place for ducks

Like lots of parts of Britain, Norfolk was once covered in ponds. But after the Second World War, as agriculture evolved and wheat replaced cattle and sheep, they started to be drained at pace. It’s estimated that in the past 70 years, 8,000 ponds in Norfolk have been lost. In some instances they’ve gone entirely, but there are places where traces of them remain.

Anybody who has wandered the lanes of East Anglia will have seen dense clumps of willow in the middle of vast expanses of corn. These are Norfolk’s ghost ponds. Initially they weren’t ponds at all — they were “marl pits”, where nutrient-rich clay was dug to fertilise the fields, but in the eighteenth century, farmers turned to industrially-produced lime instead and they were left to fill with water.

One resource became another, and then they ceased to be of use at all. Some of them, in winter mostly, still hold a bit of water but the sun usually can’t get in and oxygen levels are low, which means their ecological function is minimal. With no insects to feed on, a ghost pond is no home for dragonflies and no place for ducks.

Inevitably, it was ducks that had led to me asking about the ponds in the first place. It’s been three years now since the land where I created a duck pond in Dumfriesshire was sold. On stormy November nights, not being able to sit out by the water’s edge with my gun, listening for teal on the wind, is a real cause of sadness.

I can’t help but wonder if the first option the keeper showed me was so choked up with scrub, he hoped he’d put me off the whole thing entirely. “See what I mean? Hardly even any point in getting out to have a look. You’d be at it for days with a chainsaw.”

Further on, we stopped by some old barns and he took his gun from the passenger seat behind us and shot a crow off the roof. “Grey partridges nesting in that field there,” he nodded, as the black corpse came tumbling down the pantiles. “What I don’t understand,” he said to me, getting back in, “is that I don’t like football but I wouldn’t want to see it banned. Shooting, who knows how long it’s got. Did you see they’re talking about banning fishing in Wales?”

We drove through the ford and I told him he’s right. They’ll probably ban teal shooting at some point. Wigeon, too. Maybe all wild duck shooting will be gone within the next couple of decades.

Gone, mostly, because people who’ve never seen a teal simply don’t like it. Looking back now, it was the best thing I could have said but I said it because I meant it. “That’s why I want to restore the pond. Because if I don’t get another flight pond going soon, it could be too late.”

He looked at me and nodded, then said that there was another one we could look at if I liked. They’d had some busy nights not so many years ago and he reckoned with a bit of work, it could come good again.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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