ARC Trustee Prof Trevor Beebee talks about his enthusiasm for ponds and why restoring them enhances our landscapes.

Britain lost more than seventy percent of its countryside ponds in the late 20th century. With the advent of piped water farmers no longer needed them for livestock, and all too often they became merely a waste of space to be infilled, or just left to decay by neglect. Many of those pools lucky enough to survive this onslaught became degraded by increasingly intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides.  Yet more, including the one that triggered my childhood fascination with amphibians, became victims of expanding urban development. Happily, recent years have seen increased emphasis on the restoration of ponds and, indeed, the creation of new ones. Wildlife charities including ARC and the Freshwater Habitats Trust are increasingly contributing towards restoring these wildlife waterways and their amphibian populations, not to mention many other fascinating species that depend on them. 

My pond on the hills

Brimble Pit in the early 2000s

Enthusiasts from the Somerset Amphibian & Reptile Group (RAGS) have engaged in a substantial programme of pond restoration on the Mendips over the past few years, an enterprise that has already seen several recolonisations by great crested newts. However, my personal obsession has been with one of the few natural ponds on these hills. The Mendips are mostly limestone, highly permeable to water, and most of the ponds there were man-made using local stone and mortar. Brimble Pit is one of the few natural water bodies, with a clay lens that historically created a much larger pool than the artificial ponds on the Mendips. Sadly, however, when I first visited it in the early 1980s there was little open water left. Due to natural succession mostly just an overgrown marsh remained, but even so a survey in 1982 discovered frogs, toads and all three species of newts in tiny vestigial pools. Their days were clearly numbered and by the turn of the millennium only an amphibian-free quagmire remained. What to do?

Bringing back Brimble Pit

Mechanical digger excavating the pond

The landowner was sympathetic to the idea of recreating a decent pond, but there was a quandary. Digging out the vegetation risked damaging the clay bed, which might lead to total desiccation and therefore an even worse situation – not even a marsh. The previous, deceased landowner had published a paper suggesting that the pit was mainly filled by rainwater running off the neighbouring road. The road dips naturally by the pond, so a helpful digger owner opened up an overgrown channel from road to pit. It didn’t help. We therefore had to risk some excavation, and a small test dig by RAGS volunteers held water over a trial winter. The following spring, in 2019, I decided to bite the bullet and organised a full scale excavation using a mechanical digger. It worked, the clay liner survived and open water was restored. Within months after the excavation the scar was smoothed over by resurgent vegetation and Brimble Pit is now a large, attractive pool once again. Colonisation by flying insects including water bugs, water beetles and dragonflies including the impressive Emperor was rapid last summer, and in spring of this year there were common toad tadpoles and a great crested newt under a nearby refugium.

The ponds clay liner survived and open water was restored Brimble Pit is now a large, attractive pool once again

Along the way

It took several years to bring plans to restore Brimble Pit to fruition. The pool lies within a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and permission from Natural England (NE) was therefore required before any work could begin. The local officer wanted to test the pool’s substrate with an auger and took almost a year to find one in the NE office. Expecting something sophisticated, I was surprised when he arrived with what was basically just a pointed stick.  Anyhow, he was incredibly supportive – one of the old school NE officers more concerned with conservation than with deskbound paperwork. Just do it, he suggested, and don’t bother with a formal application. Not often you hear that for anything these days. Then contacting the landowner was less than straightforward. She lives in Oxford and only visits our village occasionally, where she has a small studio with no letterbox. Having no proper contact details I sellotaped a letter to the studio door, not very hopeful of a response. Luck was in; she made a visit, and although snails had consumed most of the letter enough remained for her to make a positive reply. Finally, the tenant farmer, also very supportive, informed me that efforts had been made previously to restore Brimble Pit. This was baffling and somewhat disconcerting, as I had seen no signs of any work during my regular visits over the past 40 years. Well, he said, his father had mentioned that the restoration was undertaken ‘when the zeppelins were flying over’.

So, a century on Brimble Pit is restored to life for a second time and it will be interesting to follow the fate of returning wildlife. For me, at least, being able to sit by this glorious pond in spring and summer has brought immense personal satisfaction. Hopefully ever more people will take up the cudgel to bring back Britain’s outstanding pondy heritage.

Find out more about Professor Beebee and other members of ARC's board of Trustees on our Trustees page.