New research shows that creating clean-water ponds in the farmed countryside can dramatically increase levels of freshwater biodiversity, protecting our fragile ecosystems, and almost trebling the number of rare plant species.
A nine-year project showed that creating just 20 clean water ponds across a 10km2 area of farmland increased the number of wetland plant species by more than a quarter (26%). The number of regionally rare plants almost trebled (a 181% increase). Species that were largely extinct in the wider countryside returned once more.
The benefits were an order of magnitude greater than observed using other, more traditional, biodiversity enhancement methods that were also tested. The ponds were also one of the cheapest interventions, costing just £1,500-2,000 each to create.
Lead author Penny Williams from Freshwater Habitats Trust said: “The gains we saw are unprecedented for freshwater and are, by a long way, the largest recorded improvements in freshwater diversity seen from adding land management measures to countryside landscapes.
“Our previous work had already shown that ponds were a secret treasure in the British countryside – with a value out of proportion to their tiny size. However, the scale of benefits from adding new ponds took all of us by surprise.”
The peer-reviewed findings, recently published in the journal Biological Conservation, are the first major results from the Water Friendly Farming project: a long-term collaboration between the Freshwater Habitats Trust, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the University of York, the Environment Agency and landowners in three Leicestershire catchments.
If the ponds had not been created, freshwater plants would have declined by 9% (1% per annum) across the region during the survey period.
Dr Jeremy Biggs, Freshwater Habitats Trust Director, said: “This is such an important result; freshwater biodiversity is under threat both across the UK and the globe. Climate change will wreak even more havoc in future years and up to now we have found very few ways to combat losses and make the countryside more resilient.
“This study is unique because we’ve proven that it’s possible to increase freshwater biodiversity significantly at a regional scale. Up to now benefits have either been very limited, or very local.”
The project also tested a range of more traditional measures used around the world for protecting freshwater biodiversity. This included adding woody debris to streams, damming-up ditches to create pools that slowed water runoff and trapped sediments, and building interception ponds to filter out nutrients and other pollutants. Together, these measures had some biodiversity benefit, but an order of magnitude lower than the clean water ponds.
Professor Chris Stoate from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust said: “It’s clear that the key ingredient to success was carefully locating new ponds in places where they would fill with clean water. To get the best effect we sited them in low-intensity pasture, scrub or woodland – areas unaffected by agricultural or road pollution. Measures in other locations and with other functions didn’t work half so well.”
The project team believe that creating clean-water ponds speciﬁcally targeted for biodiversity could hold great potential as a tool to help stem, and even reverse, ongoing declines in freshwater plant biodiversity across agricultural landscapes.
The work was funded by the Environment Agency.
Notes to editors
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.
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