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Conservation – The demise of an English pond

I have known The Pond since my childhood. Nobody knew when The Pond had been excavated but, as with many small East Anglian ponds, it was certainly hand-dug by farm labourers or navvies. The clay they extracted was a vital commodity in the construction of houses and farm buildings in the area, the building technique being known as “clay-lump”.

The better buildings such as houses were covered with a brick “skin”, the clay layer providing an insulating effect that allowed these properties to retain heat in winter while remaining cool during the summer.

Many ponds were excavated in field corners where they could be integrated into the drainage system of dykes and ditches. During winter the excess rainwater ran off the fields into the network of drains and much of it was directed towards The Pond. I never saw it empty of water, even during periods of drought, and despite it being 20ft deep, the winter rainfall often caused The Pond to be brim-full, thereby removing a lot of water from the arable water table which might otherwise have hampered agricultural operations.

Over the years a cluster of ash trees had grown up around The Pond’s fringe. Woodpigeon roosted there on grey winter afternoons and a schoolmate’s father once shot more than 100 woodies from his hide set among these trees, his decoys seemingly irresistible to the flighting birds. The moorhens loved The Pond, a pyre-like nest reaching up from the nut-brown water and (prior to the intervention of legislative protection) I knew of at least one hungry schoolboy who removed the buff-and-brown blotched eggs, often with the aid of a tablespoon tied on to his mother’s linen-prop. Showing remarkable stoicism, the waterhens would always nest again and a family group would always be seen gleaning the stubbles come autumn.

I would often sit in the shade of those trees on a hot summer afternoon, as it was a good place to watch wildlife go about its business. The soft mud around the shallows betrayed the visits of both roe and muntjac deer, though I never actually saw either within close proximity of The Pond. Blackbirds, wrens, thrushes, numerous tits and finches, turtle doves and several black- hearted members of the crow tribe visited the unglamorous watering hole. My visits during winter coincided with redwings and fieldfares flocking toward this roost site and I often bagged a mallard as it flighted towards The Pond at dusk.

Of course, I was not the only hunter to patrol The Pond. Sparrowhawks haunted the songbirds, kestrels hovered above its boundary and once I surprised a fox that was skulking around the small rabbit warren in the high bank. The Pond was a timeless feature for both myself and the wildlife, working in harmony with the seasons, but I was not the only human visitor to value its charms. An untidy pile of cycles were often to be found abandoned near the roadside gate, the owners being a group of budding anglers. These youngsters could not afford the price of a day ticket at an organised fishing venue, but were quite content to learn the rudiments of this noble pastime in these humble surroundings. An unknown benefactor from the distant past had stocked The Pond with a modest selection of coarse fish and great was the sport enjoyed by the village lads, despite their minimalist assortment of obsolete tackle. The farmer never found reason to halt their innocent visits and succeeding generations sat watching their floats as dragonflies skimmed the water. Only the heron was perplexed by their presence, the angular “Harnser” having to make a drag-legged flight to a distant, quieter water. However, the succession of young anglers eventually dwindled.

The Pond’s fortunes took a retrograde step around a decade ago when an obsolete piece of farm machinery was dumped in the water. Further desecration has since taken place, the new owner allowing all and sundry to use this rural gem as an unlicensed landfill site, all in return for a “drink”. Despite the increasing accumulation of rusty corrugated iron sheets, oil drums, old tyres, doors, glass and building waste, the wildlife tenaciously clung on. The water voles were the first to absent themselves, a horde of rats colonising the “tip” after a crop of sugar beet was grown on an adjacent field.

As the surface area of The Pond decreased, the moorhens departed, and now only the woodpigeon and songbirds still visit the slowly diminishing treeline. Each autumn, when the JCB arrives to level off the past year’s scandalously jettisoned pile of debris, another tree or section of hedgerow becomes uprooted and is pushed into The Pond. Now only a ditch-like trench survives, along with a withering stand of ash trees. No longer will frogs spawn here in March, the kingfisher’s occasional visits have halted and the pause to water a Suffolk Punch during a hot harvest afternoon will never be witnessed here again. Having been viewed as an asset by several generations, The Pond’s demise has taken barely a decade.