Restoring farmland ponds supports declining bird species – study

Restoring ponds on farms could help boost farmland birds as well as wetland wildlife, research suggests.

Since the 1950s, many ponds which were once a common feature in the farmed landscape have been filled in to reclaim more land for farming or have not been managed.

This has left them overgrown with trees and bushes, cutting out light and making them uninhabitable for many species.

Bringing back traditional management methods that remove trees and mud can benefit not only pond species but also farmland birds, research by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, Natural History Museum and University College London suggests.

Farmlands birds such as skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and starling have seen numbers decline dramatically in recent decades, and are now “red listed” because of concerns over their survival.

The research compared ponds restored by the Norfolk Ponds Project, which aims to reverse the decline of the county’s ponds and provide a mosaic of water spots in agricultural landscapes, with neighbouring unmanaged ponds.

An overgrown pond
An overgrown pond before restoration (Car Sayer, UCL and Norfolk Ponds project/PA)

Twice as many bird species were spotted at the restored ponds – with 36 species seen – compared to the overgrown ponds were just 18 species were recorded.

And there were almost three times as many birds overall seen in the restored ponds compared to the ones filled with trees, shrubs and mud.

There were 95 sightings of skylarks, linnets, yellowhammers and starlings in and around the restored water spots, while there were just two yellowhammer sightings at the overgrown ponds, and none of the other red listed birds.

The birds are benefiting from the far more abundant insect life emerging from the restored ponds, which they are feeding on, the researchers said.

And with the insects emerging at different times in different places, a network of restored ponds across the landscape benefits the birds throughout the breeding season, the experts said.

Skylark
Skylarks are among the red listed species spotted at the ponds (WWT/PA)

They also act as stepping stones across the landscape for other wildlife such as dragonflies and frogs.

Hannah Robson, Wetland science manager at WWT, said: “Our research shows how important it is to restore and manage ponds in farmland.

“Even following long periods of dormancy, overgrown farmland ponds can quickly come back to life, with plants, amphibians and insects starting to colonise them in a matter of months.

“That is why this research could be an important pointer of where the UK’s environmental and agricultural policy should focus post Brexit.”

Carl Sayer, of University College London Pond Restoration Group, said: “The research on birds was inspired by Norfolk farmer Richard Waddingham.

“His constant belief has always been that farming and wildlife can co-exist and with wildlife declining at an alarming rate, at no time in history do we need to make this work more than now.

“Restoring farmland ponds is clearly part of a positive way forward.”

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