Garden pond guide: how to look after your pond and wildlife to spot

A garden pond can provide a haven for wildlife, offering a valuable water source and place to cool off in the summer months. Here is our garden pond guide with tips on how to look after your pond, how to go pond dipping and wildlife to spot.

Small garden pond

Ponds have existed for millions of years and yet human activity has led to decline of wetlands which has led to a loss of wildlife. The good news is you can help, by creating a wildlife pond in your garden.

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Even the tiniest garden pond can be a haven for your garden wildlife. Here is our garden pond guide with tips on how to look after your pond and wildlife to spot.

Pond facts

  • A pond is a man-made or natural water body which is between one metre squared and two hectares which holds water for four months of the year or more.
  • Ponds have existed for millions of years and the animals and plants that rely on them have evolved perfectly to fill this niche.
  • Human activity has led to a loss of ponds. About 2000-3000 years ago around one third of the UK was wetlands.
  • Seasonal ponds are important as fish can’t survive in them. This allows amphibians and insects to breed and thrive.
  • Ponds don’t need to be deep. In fact, many species are happiest in just a few centimetres of water.
Garden pond
The beautiful pond in Hyde Park, London. Ponds are even more vital in urban areas.
(Getty)

How to look after your garden pond

1

Let your pond level fluctuate with the weather

If possible it’s best to let the water level in your pond fluctuate as the weather dictates. In a hot spell the level can drop alarmingly, but as long as there’s a deeper area that holds water all year, little harm will come to the wildlife in it.

Frog sitting on rock, Scotland, UK (Getty)
2

Install a water butt

Water butts really come in to their own in the summer months. They can fill up quickly from summer storms and make water available through dry spells. Filling a watering can by dunking it in a water butt is also much quicker than waiting at the tap. If you’re lucky with the levels in your garden, you can even use flexible pipe so that your water butt overflow ends up topping your pond – this way you’re unlikely to ever need to do it by hand. This is also a more environmentally-friendly way to water your garden plants.

3

Only use rainwater to top up your pond

If you can’t live with the sight of a drying pond, try to only use rainwater to fill your pond.

Raindrops splashing into pond
Allow your pond to refill with rainwater. (Getty)
4

Collect seed from plants to raise new ones

If you need to expand your planting, there’s no better way of knowing where your plants have come from than raising them yourself. Collecting seeds from your existing plants is an environmentally-friendly way to build your pond plant collection.

5

Avoid non-native pond plants

Be careful when populating your pond with plants, as you may introduce species that aren’t native to our shores and that can have disastrous effects on our own ecosystem.

Invasive plants don’t have any natural predators and they grow rapidly as a result. For example, floating pennywort can form a mat of green vegetation, spreading for up to 15m (50ft), in just one year.

Here are some of the key species you should never buy:

  • Australian swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii)
  • Curly water weed (Lagarosiphon major)
  • Floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides)
  • Parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum)
  • Water fern (Azolla filiculoides)
  • Water primrose (Ludwigia grandiflora)

Instead, buy water-friendly native plants such as water starwort (Callitriche stagnalis), hair grass (Eleocharis acicularis), water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) and greater spearwort (Ranunculus lingua).


How to identify freshwater pond wildlife

Summer is a time to leave your pond and its wildlife in peace. However, by looking at your pond at night, you might be surprised at what creatures come out when the sun goes down.

You’ll be surprised how much wildlife is attracted to your pond. Watching what appears can also be a nice study of how and why animals disperse. Ponds, whether natural or man-made, are transient and often isolated habitats and many animals are well adapted to seeking them out.

Water boatman

Water boatman
Lesser water boatman (Corixa sp.) ©Alamy

An aggressive 10–18mm-long bug that rows – using oar-like limbs – ‘upside down’ beneath the surface film waiting to snatch flies and other creatures that fall on to the water. If threatened, the water boatman dives deeply. 

Water scorpion

Water scorpion, Nepa cinerea
Water scorpion, Nepa cinerea ©Alamy

Flattened, diamond-shaped predatory insect. It waits on banks or plants with the tip of its breathing tube above
the water surface and ambushes small creatures with its trap-like front legs. 

Dragonfly and damselfly guide: common species in Britain, where to find and how to identify

Summer is a great time for spotting insects on the wing in the British countryside – our expert guide explains how to identify and where to find common dragonflies, damselflies and demoiselles species.

Damselfly with dark band across centre of wings and metallic blue-green body

Look for dragonfly exuviae

Exuviae are the dried up ‘skins’ of dragonfly larvae that have emerged from your pond and metamorphosised into adult dragonflies. It’s a sure-fire way of knowing that dragonflies have bred successfully in your pond.

Emperor Dragonfly, Anax imperator
Emperor Dragonfly, Anax imperator ©Getty

See our guide on how to identify freshwater pond wildlife 


Endangered pond wildlife

Many of the UK’s natural ponds are in turmoil with numbers dramatically reduced or affected by pollution.  This is bad news for species such as water beetles, newts and dragonflies that rely on fresh water sources to survive.

There are 80 pond species that are a national priority for conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), here are some of the rarest.

Natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita)

It’s possibly easier to hear this toad than spot it as the male has a very loud croak which he loves to show off, especially after rain. Up to 7cm long, this toad is easily distinguished from other species by the yellow stripe down its back. Confined to mostly coastal areas as they live in sand dunes, heathland and salt marshes where they need shallow, warm pools to breed, they have relatively short limbs, so are poor swimmers and tend to run rather than hop. Rare in Britain and the only native toad in Ireland, the Natterjack toad is threatened through habitat loss and listed as Endangered.

natterjack toad
The natterjack toad is native to sandy and heathland areas of Europe. (Getty)

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis)

The fantastic Tadpole shrimp is a living fossil that has remained unchanged in 220 million years. They resemble mini horseshoe crabs and reach up to 11cm long in the wild where they live in temporary pools. Feeding on small invertebrates, microscopic particles and plants which they dig up using their shield-like carapace, Tadpole shrimps are very sensitive to veterinary compounds released into water from livestock waste. They are restricted to just one pond in the New Forest and a handful of pools in southwest Scotland, so are classified as Endangered in the UK.

Tadpole shrimp
Tadpole shrimp are endangered in the UK. (Getty)

Brown galingale (Cyperus fuscus)

This plant reproduces quickly and can complete its entire lifecycle in just four months. Varying greatly in height, the Brown galingale is a small tufted sedge with tiny flowers that can exist in suspended animation in its seed form while waiting for appropriate conditions to arise. Listed as Vulnerable in the UK, it is threatened by loss and drainage of ponds.

Pond plant
Brown galingale (Cyperus fuscus) (Getty)

Fairy shrimp (Chirocephalus diaphanous) 

Like its namesake the Fairy shrimp is delicate, translucent and tiny (only 25mm long). Unlike fairies, they swim around on their backs feeding on microscopic organisms in temporary pools. Any disturbance from farm animals benefits them and they are tolerant of fluctuations, but are a favourite prey of fish. In the past, they existed through much of England but sadly their main habitats are considered unsightly and filled in. They are related to the highly popular “Sea Monkeys” pets of the 1960s and 70s.

Fairy shrimp
The female Fairy Shrimp (Branchipus schaefferi) captured close up with black background. A little beautiful white crustacean swimming in the water. (Getty)
Macro of a large flightless bloody nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa) on a plantain (Plantago lanceolata) flower spike.

Lesser silver water beetle (Hydrochara caraboides)

Lesser silver water beetles are not terribly adapted to underwater life and are poor swimmers. The adults are up to 15mm long and are so-named because bubbles of air become trapped in tiny hairs on their underside causing a silvery appearance. They were widely distributed in the 19th century but have since declined and are now live in Cheshire and the Somerset Levels where they are classed as Endangered. The adults feed on decaying plant matter but the larvae are voracious predators of water snails.

Beetle
Lesser silver diving beetle (Hydrochara caraboides), captive, Cheshire, England, UK, (Getty)

Three lobed water crowfoot (Ranunculus tripartitus)

This is the plant equivalent of a Royal Marine soldier. They cope best in difficult conditions where they are likely to become trodden on, squashed or grazed and do not like competition. They live in temporary, shallow water bodies, especially cart tracks near coastal strips. With a stem length of up to 60cm, this plant is a member of the buttercup family and the white flowers are held up from the water surface. They are listed as Vulnerable and threatened by a loss of its heathland habitat.

Plant illustration
Very Rare, Beautifully Illustrated Antique Engraved and Hand Colored Victorian Botanical Illustration of Three-lobed Water Crowfoot, Ranunculus tripartitus, Victorian Botanical Illustration, 1863 (Getty)

White-faced darter dragonfly (Leuchorrhinia dubia) 

A favourite species to spot for insect enthusiasts, White-faced darters are small dark dragonflies that prefer cool conditions. They mainly exist in Scotland in deep lowland peatbogs where their colouration helps them to warm up quickly. The larvae live in Sphagnum (a moss species that occurs on the surface of a peat bog) and cannot exist in ponds with fish. These attractive dragonflies are threatened by habitat destruction, pollution and removal of Sphagnum.

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Dragonfly
White-faced darter dragonfly (Leuchorrhinia dubia) (Getty)

How to pond dip without disturbing wildlife

The occasional dip with a net into the pond won’t cause much harm, but try not to disturb the sediment, which will release nutrients into the pond, encouraging blanket weed growth. Empty the net into an old (but clean) washing up bowl or similar filled with an inch of water and see what life appears… and tip it all back in afterwards.

How to make a pond-dipping net

Discover an underwater world of insects, fish and strange-looking amphibians with your very own homemade fishing net.

Pond dipping class
Children of all ages will find pond-dipping a fun activity. (Getty)

Best wildlife ponds to visit

Bustling ecosystems in their own right, these great ponds are brimming over with wildlife. From rural Wales to a wetland sanctuary right in the middle of our capital city, here’s five of the best wildlife ponds to visit in the UK.

Ynys-hir, Ceredigion

Ynys-hir mixes Welsh oak woodland with wet grassland and saltmarshes. The ponds are accessible, and field officers are usually on hand. Home to BBC Springwatch 2012. www.rspb.org.uk

Pond
Ponds at Ynys-Hir
This is the view east from the main buildings across the ponds on the RSPB reserve at Ynys Hir on the south side of the Afon Dyfi estuary. (© Nigel Mykura for Geograph)

 

Red Moss of Balerno, near Edinburgh

Situated two miles south of Balerno on the edge of the Pentlands, Red Moss is the only lowland raised bog in the city of Edinburgh. The pond-dipping area has recently been regenerated.

Pond
Pond excavated by the boardwalk path around the Red Moss nature trail. © Copyright M J Richardson (Geograph)

Studland beach and nature reserve, Dorset

The reserve contains Little Sea, a freshwater paradise. More than 20 species of dragonfly and damselfly call this place home. Plenty of events and good facilities.

Beach
Studland middle beach Dorset England UK located between Swanage and Poole and Bournemouth, one of three beaches on this stretch of coast the others being Knoll and South beaches. (Getty)

WWT London Wetland Centre, Barnes

An urban mecca for thousands of wetland birds, and home to green frogs too, our noisy neighbours from the continent. Excellent accessibility and regular pond-dipping sessions in the spring and summer.

Wetland centre
A view across one of the vast water bodies at the London Wetland Centre near Barnes. (Getty)