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The duck pond is a tradition that goes back centuries and has its roots in the Middle Ages when it was at the heart of village life. Today, a duck pond is a staple of rural villages that have been well preserved and retained their charm and character. However, there is much more to a pond than a quaint and picturesque landscape feature.
Here’s a brief look at the surprising history of the humble village duck pond, and why creating your very own version may not be as difficult as you think, especially with the right pond plants.
The mediaeval origins of the community pond
The majority of village ponds were not created for ornamental purposes, but to serve the local community. Most of them were built during the mediaeval era by travelling labourers, and took an average of four weeks to complete. They were usually about eight feet deep towards the centre and shallower around the edges.
The ponds were usually lined with puddled clay or chalk and left to fill up naturally with rainwater. Also known as ‘dew ponds’, the village pond was a community resource that was used to stock fish, wash clothes and water livestock, soak cartwheels to prevent shrinkage, and to stock waterfowl.
Duck ponds were also built in the grounds of manor houses and monasteries to provide a habitat for domestic wildfowl that were bred for food. Many country estates today still retain a large pond as an attractive landscape feature, and sometimes used to stock fish or allowed to become a natural habitat for wildlife.
The evolution of public parks
During the Victorian era when public parks were built for the benefit of the burgeoning urban population, a duck pond was often incorporated into the landscape design. The ducks were often natural colonisers and the pond was also an opportunity for leisure and recreation in warmer weather.
The threats to the existence of ponds
Sadly, almost 70% of ponds in Britain have been lost to changing land use, or because they have naturally silted up or become polluted or choked with weeds. There is also a growing threat from invasive plant species, which thrive in the warmer conditions brought about by climate change and have no natural predators.
Why building a duck pond may be easier than you think
In recent years, there has fortunately been much more focus on preserving and enhancing existing ponds, and also creating new ones. Many people assume that you need large areas of farmland or a country estate to build a duck pond, but this is not always the case; it very much depends on the type of wildfowl you want to keep.
The British Waterfowl Association advises that an aviary pool one metre in diameter and 30cm deep is adequate to keep one pair of ducks. For wildfowl, depth is more important than the diameter of the pond. Diving ducks need a depth of several metres, while mallards will only require about 45cm.
All waterfowl should have enough depth to fully immerse their heads in water as this is how they keep their eyes and nostrils clear. The quality of the water is also important, as this helps the fowl to keep their feathers clean and reduces the risk of disease. Generally, deeper and larger ponds are easier to keep clean than small shallow ones.
Ideally, a larger collection of wildfowl should be kept in a more extensive garden with a pond located in a partly sheltered area that also receives some sunshine. Avoid a location with a lot of overhanging trees, as the leaves will accumulate in the water and cause pollution.
The sides of the pond should be gently sloping to allow the ducks to easily enter and exit the water, and rafts and islands provide useful basking areas.
What plants do you need for duck ponds?
Duck ponds will benefit from a mixture of short and tall grasses and reeds planted around the perimeter to provide shelter and cover for nesting. Suitable species include Cyprus sedge, Sweet galingale, Greater pond sedge, Branched bur reed and, if the pond is larger, some of the Typhas (Reedmace and Narrow reedmace). These are all tough and strong growing plants so will tolerate some abuse from ducks and will also help stop bank erosion.
Flowering marginals will attract insects which form part of the Ducks’ diet, so Purple loosestrife, Gypsywort, Water mint and Marsh woundwort are all particularly good. In addition, submerged oxygenators provide excellent habitat for all sorts of invertebrates that the ducks will feed on as well as helping to keep the water clear by mopping up nutrients in the pond and improving water quality. Hornwort and Willow moss are relatively duck-proof in this regard and Mare’s tail is also worth trying.
Floating plants plant are also beneficial and an important part of the pond ecosystem, however it may not be worth putting in young Water lilies as these are expensive and may not survive the ducks’ attention. A well-established Fringe lily may be a better option and is both excellent for wildlife and vigorous so better able to cope, and Frogbit is also worth trying as, if it is allowed to establish, it will spread quite quickly.
Ideally pond plants should be well established before the introduction of ducks to the pond because young tender plants are easily damaged by inquisitive birds. Alternatively young plants can be protected using 25mm wire netting to a height of 50cm. Other strategies for planting are to introduce different plants gradually to see which ones survive the best, or to plant more densely so any damage is spread over a greater number of plants meaning less harm to each. The more vigorous pond plants which may be a problem in smaller ponds may be an asset in a duck pond as they will be able to recover more quickly from unwanted attention.
Aim to have a good balance between marginal plants, submerged plants, and free-floating plants to maintain good water quality. If space allows, trees and shrubs set back from the water’s edge are useful to provide shade and shelter. However, be wary of varieties that are poisonous to ducks and wildfowl. The BWA carries a list of toxic species to avoid.