Ghost Ponds - bringing life back to the landscape

Ghost Ponds - bringing life back to the landscape

Restored ghost pond at Shimpling Park Farm

Organic farmer John Pawsey rediscovers and reinstates 'ghost' ponds at Shimpling Park Farm.

We’ve got ponds all over Shimpling Park Farm, but some of them have been hiding.

We also have some ponds that have been hogging the limelight for years, usually the larger ones and probably those that have continued to be useful to agriculture for the longest period of time.

Earliest records of ponds at Shimpling, a former medieval deer park, were recorded by Arthur Copinger in his book, “The Manors of Suffolk” where he describes a bit of beef in 1303 between its then owner Robert Fitz Walter and his tenant Adam de Waldingfield where Fitz Walter complains that his tenant, “Felled his trees and fished in his ponds at Shimpling”. So originally they were carp ponds and relief for hunted deer, but when Shimpling Park was disemparked and turned to agriculture, I would imagine that its ponds would have been used for sustaining domestic grazing animals and water sources for working horses. Latterly I suspect they would have been used to top up steam engines and even more recently to fill farm sprayers, now not allowed.

Restored ghost pond at Shimpling Park Farm

Freshly dug ghost pond at Shimpling Park Farm

Even though their presence has supported the nature of farming for hundreds of years, in recent history their practical use of providing food and keeping the farming wheels turning has dwindled, resulting in most of our ponds being filled in to make fields more productive or reclaimed by field boundaries, hidden from view and starved of light.

Our first candidates when looking to restore our ponds were the ones that we knew existed on our hedged boundaries but had been sealed off by natural regeneration. Not a bad thing for the hedges, but the build-up of leaf litter over the years caused them to dry out or stagnate from a combination of rotting leaves and a lack of sunlight. They were the easy pickings as productive farming continued unhindered and their restoration fell neatly into our rotational ditch management cycle.

The ponds that were more challenging to reinstate were the infield ones that my predecessors had filled in the name of productivity, as like it or not, infield obstacles do affect our farming operations be they trees, telegraph poles or ponds. However, having had so much joy in seeing what abundant nature had been brought back to the farm by restoring our field edge ponds, with the help and encouragement of Sam Hanks from Suffolk Wildlife Trust, we took the plunge and committed to rediscovering our hidden “Ghost ponds”. So how do we find these ghostly hollows?

Restoring a ghost pond at Shimpling Park Farm

Restoring a ghost pond at Shimpling Park Farm

Former ponds do leave their scar and so are evident even in their spectral form. Often filled in with a different soil type or subsoil, they can often be seen when cultivating in the autumn showing a slightly different soil colour to be rest of the field. Some will have settled over time leaving a slight dip or are areas of the field that remain slightly damp even in a dry summer due to a natural spring still working away at the pond’s former base. Although we had this knowledge, a great additional resource for us was the mapping tool provided by the National Library of Scotland. This online free application allows you to load an old map of your location and then bleed through a recent satellite map enabling you to exactly locate former architectural and natural features. If you are looking for former farm ponds it’s a magnificent resource, but if you want to find out about the mapped history of your house or garden it’s a fascinating tool to use.

When rediscovering a ghost pond it is important to find its precise former location as many of its original natural features can still be lying dormant and brought back to life just by exposing them to light even after scores of years, making them more important than the virgin dug option. It’s also really important to have a very sympathetic digger driver who can carefully find the hidden bottom by recognising different features as the pond is dug. Once found, you can work your way out of the pond by following a thin dark layer of pond mud but also objects that have been thrown into the bottom of the pond during its lifetime like horseshoes or even former aquatic life like water snails. We found a rather wonderful cache of intact green bottles. I fancied that they would have contained beer and had been tossed into the pond by a boozed horseman after a relaxing lunch, but they turned out to be vessels which would have contained natural mineral water from the Continent and so were more likely placed by an abstaining Gent which isn’t nearly as exciting!

Although there has been some furrowing of brows from some by our “spoiling” the shape of two of our regular shaped and more productive fields for farming, bringing life back into the middle of fields to my mind is incredibly important. Seeing what our restored field edge ponds have contributed to the diversity of our wildlife means that I am very happy to put up with a little inconvenience from the tractor seat when they have such a positive effect on nature.

With two ghost ponds dug, I am going back to the maps of the National Library of Scotland to discover some more. Our hidden ponds will be revealed! I am also planning a lunch with beer on the banks of them so that I can toss in some bottles of my own for future reference. Would you like to join me?

Find out more about Suffolk Wildlife Trust's farmland wildlife advisory service here.

You can keep in touch with John and find out how he incorporates wildlife into his farm business on his website and via Twitter: @hanslope