This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Eastern Daily Press weekend magazine.

By Vicky Boorman


Pond dipping at Strumpshaw Fen

We had such a brilliant time the other day, pond dipping at our local RSPB nature reserve, Strumpshaw Fen just outside Norwich. Who knew that ponds were so full of life! We borrowed nets from the reserve and my children loved scooping them through the water, then pulling them up filled, at first look, just with straggly green weed and algae, but when we tipped our wet bounty out into a tray, we find wriggling, paddling, skimming, squirming life.

There's more than meets the eye to the waters at Strumpshaw Fen. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

With the help of an identification chart the kids were able to match and name what we found, which made it even more exciting for them.  Water beetles, pond snails, newts, back-swimmers, water scorpions, water boatman, (slightly comical with their paddle-like back legs) – there was so much there. We cupped some of these creatures and more into magnifying pots for a closer look and discovered the wonderful world of dragonfly nymphs. They look like a little alien creature – ours is translucent brown in colour, and we can see the first buds of wings folded tightly against its back. Most people know dragonflies as shimmering, iridescent above-ground insects, but actually they spend most of their lives underwater and only give us a few days or weeks in their flying adult opulence.

Children eagerly plunge their nets into the depths. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

The elusive natterjack toad

Ponds have also played a vital part recently in the life of the natterjack toad. This endangered amphibian can be distinguished from more common varieties by a thin, bold, yellow stripe down its back. Natterjacks used to be quite common on the Surrey and Hampshire heaths and also around the coast of East Anglia, but loss of suitable habitat meant there were only one or two colonies left. The RSPB carried out a successful re-introduction from a Norfolk site in the 1980s. Since then, we've provided a range of artificial ponds, carefully managed to offer the best survival for this very rare amphibian. Thanks to the support of our volunteers and careful pond management, it’s been a bumper year for natterjacks at one of our eastern region reserves, The Lodge in Bedfordshire. We’ve had many thousands of tadpoles in our six ponds there and by the end of May, small toadlets began to emerge; many more will make the transition before the end of the summer.

An endangered natterjack toad peers across a mossy bank. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

Get digging, go dipping!

A well designed pond is a haven for all sorts of plants, birds and animals therefore you’ll find them at most of our reserves. They can become amazingly complex habitat full of algae and plants, scavengers, predators, herbivores, decomposers and parasites. Some species spend their whole life in the pond, for instance water snails and small crustaceans, while others use it for only part of their life cycle, such as pond skaters. They also provide essential drinking and bathing water for birds and mammals.

So, ponds are great all round really and I thoroughly recommend pond dipping as a brilliant children’s (and adult) activity, so why not visit our reserves events page and find out where the next pond dipping day is nearest to you.

Well designed ponds are a haven for all sorts of wildlife to be discovered. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

Plan a garden pond

 -       Decide what wildlife you want to attract before you dig your pond. Its position, size and shape, as well as the surrounding habitat, will affect its appeal to different species.

-       A pond should have gently sloping sides to provide the all-important shallow areas on which much wildlife depends

-       Although the shallow areas are important for insects and spawning frogs, ponds should also have some water over 60 cm deep, so that they do not freeze solid in hard winters.

 -       Some dragonflies will breed in ponds with a surface area as small as 4 square meters, but many species need a pond of over 50 square meters.

 Now you’ve planned your pond, find out how to make one.