Water is life

Outdoor Living

ATTRACTIVE FEATURE A water feature in a garden does not need to be deep – most life occurs at the surface where light is mostly available.


In the garden
Ollie Whyte Jnr

Water features in the garden provide an essential habitat for aquatic life but are also a critical water source for land based creatures. A pond of any size is an essential for the wildlife garden, and indeed is a very attractive feature for any garden style.
From a topped up bucket to a lake, the water feature does not need to be deep – most life occurs at the surface where light is mostly available. A deeper pond is helpful for very cold winters, allowing thermal shelter, or very dry summers to allow for evaporation losses.
Historically, every village had a water source but over time these were drained or filled in as part of agricultural policy and for construction. In times past, ponds were created by allowing heavy livestock to compress and puddle the soil within a dug out pit. The activity of pigs was also used to compress clay soil creating a water holding entity. These days, unless you are very lucky to have a natural wetland area, plastic or concrete lining is the most likely method used to create a pond.
Areas where ponds once existed can be brought back to life. These areas are called ‘ghost’ ponds – they regenerate rapidly when dug out. Incredibly, even after several decades, aquatic plant seeds germinate as do more basic life forms such as the planktonic crustacean Daphnia. As if by magic pond plants and insects somehow will find your water feature and take up residence quite quickly. The water bettles detect light reflecting off its surface at night while flying through the air. Fish can appear in ponds too when their eggs are transported on the bodies of visiting water birds. Unlike their winged or nimble neighbours, frogs and newts can only appear if there is a safe corridor of longer grasses and gaps in walls to allow passage.  

Birds and ducks
Birds use pond mud to build their nests, bathe and clean their plumage and consume insects if available. Ducks dine on plump water snails, the latter being very important nutrient recyclers. Foxes, hedgehogs, pine martins and other larger mammals come to drink from the water’s edge. Herons arrive to feast on fish and the excess of frogs during the annual spawning ritual – and what a sight and sound that is around St Valentine’s day. Bats perform aerial loops feasting around healthy insect rich water features at night – with a bright torch darkness is the best time to observe underwater life in action.
A more unusual pond variant is the stagnant pool – a water body with decaying plant material, while not very appealing to the human eye or nose, it is a vital nursery for the unflatteringly named ‘rat tailed maggot’. This is the larval stage of the extremely beneficial hoverfly who are significant pollinators and consumers of plant eating aphids.
Certainly for the wildlife garden using native pond plants is best as the local natural ecology has evolved around these plants. Hornwort, water-milfoil, and starwort are excellent under water oxygenating, habitat and nursery plants. Riparian or marginal water plants provide their own ‘bog garden’ ecosystem and include a beautiful range of flowering plants such as meadow sweet, purple loosestrife, yellow flag iris, marsh marigold, water forget-me-nots and bog bean. All will greatly protect emerging pond creatures such as froglets and young newts from the sun and predators – a short grass lawn bordering ponds equals death!  
Some exotic pond plant imports have escaped and caused considerable damage to local waterways including parrots feather and himalayan balsam (the latter is becoming a problem along the Carrowbeg river).

Highly sensitive
Aquatic organisms are highly sensitive to chemicals – keep pesticides used on recently treated livestock and pets far away from waterways. A UK study in 2020 revealed flee treatment chemicals used on pets were present in 99 percent of river samples. These highly potent insecticides from recently treated pets in contact with water courses kill all water insects which are the critical food sources for fish and birds. Concentrated nutrient run off will cause algal blooms which on dying causes bacteria to consume all oxygen resulting in mass die offs - eutrophication.
As any water gardener will attest, water features and the entire ecosystem that develops around them are a joy to create and observe. They are significant assets in combating the continuing decline in our wildlife.  In 1999 in Switzerland, the decline of the European tree frog and many other aquatic creatures was completely reversed by one region alone creating 400 ponds. We can all create a similar benefit in our spaces and maybe one day we will have a similar wisdom and empathy with regard to our own river in Westport town.     

Oliver Whyte Jnr is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during the summer to raise funds for charity (see, www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear on these pages.