Digging deep to save a pond - rejuvenating Lower Knapp Pond in Sidmouth

PUBLISHED: 07:00 02 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:25 04 March 2019

Simon Papworth at the pond in The Knapp. Ref shs 25 18TI 6047. Picture: Terry Ife

Simon Papworth at the pond in The Knapp. Ref shs 25 18TI 6047. Picture: Terry Ife

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Keen naturalist Simon Papworth led a project to rejuvenate Lower Knappp Pond. Here, he reflects on its success.

The restored pond at the Knapp. Ref shs 51 18TI 7009. Picture: Terry IfeThe restored pond at the Knapp. Ref shs 51 18TI 7009. Picture: Terry Ife

I have always loved ponds. As a young boy, I would visit a local pond with my net and jam jar, and see what I could catch.

Usually it was tadpoles, but occasionally, some weird crawling insect would find a way into my net, and I would wonder, in mild awe, what other mini-monsters lurked beneath the surface.

It was my first introduction to my love of nature, and the magic of ponds has stayed with me.

I felt saddened, therefore, when I noticed a Sidmouth pond neglected, and totally overgrown with weeds. It was literally choking to death. Last spring, tadpoles struggled helplessly, with no free water to swim in.

Simon Papworth at the pond in The Knapp. Ref shs 25 18TI 6057. Picture: Terry IfeSimon Papworth at the pond in The Knapp. Ref shs 25 18TI 6057. Picture: Terry Ife

After appealing for volunteers via an article in the Sidmouth Herald, a community project to save ‘Lower Knapp Pond’ was born.

The pond is owned by East Devon District Council, having been built in 1992. It is concrete lined, and fed from the mains via a stop cock, and has channels at its upper level, diverting some water into a small bog garden.

Almost half the pond was covered by a dense mat of Australian stonecrop.

This invasive plant is so vigorous that it displaces our native pond plants, and kills them. These dead plants rot, increase the nitrate levels of the water, and kill most living creatures in the pond.

Simon Papworth at the pond in The Knapp. Ref shs 25 18TI 6055. Picture: Terry IfeSimon Papworth at the pond in The Knapp. Ref shs 25 18TI 6055. Picture: Terry Ife

The volunteer group started to cut through, and remove, the amazingly dense rhizome root system of reeds, leaving the stonecrop until last.

Other plants had come into flower as we worked through the summer. The yellow flag iris, purple loosestrife and willow herb were all competing for space along with reedmace and bog bean. We had decided to clear the pond completely, and give it a fresh start.

Examples of useful plants were saved for replanting later.

In early October, after the volunteers had put in a total of more than 100 man (and woman!) hours, we went for the final push.

Lower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon PapworthLower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon Papworth

The massive mat of stonecrop was dragged out in pieces on to a large tarpaulin. We had learned that a fragment of leaf could regrow, so care was taken not to drop any near the pond!

Starving it of sunlight for six months would kill it, so we buried it in our compost area.

Using buckets, we hand cleared the pond of a huge volume of mud. The concrete base, which was in good condition, was scrubbed clean, and the pond refilled. Terracotta pots were positioned to provide protected areas for future pond life, and the cleaned rescued pond plants were placed in baskets in the water.

A half bucket of mud from the bottom of the pond had been saved, and was now tipped in the pond to help reseed it with small creatures.

Lower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon PapworthLower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon Papworth

After two weeks, we spotted our first visitor. A lesser water boatman had found a new home.

Aquatic insects use their ability to ‘see’ polarised light in order to find a pond. A shiny flat surface like a pond reflects this light, enabling a flying insect to locate a potential home. Bees and ants use polarised light from the sun, as a direction finder, so they don’t get lost, even on a cloudy day.

Young palmate newts returned to the pond, a ramshorn snail was spotted, along with a water louse and a rather large frog. The pond was coming back to life!!

Plans are to return the area around the pond into a small nature reserve, as was intended back in 1992.

Lower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon PapworthLower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon Papworth

A number of interesting trees are present, including medlar, mulberry, and quince. A black poplar, Britain’s rarest native tree, and a Scots pine look down on the area. Lots of bramble clearing has already taken place, along with some tree pruning.

An area of grass was rake tilled, and sown with yellow rattle seed, in preparation for a wild flower area in 2020.

EDDC has been very supportive with this project, and we have discussed future maintenance.

They have agreed to make access for wheelchairs and small disability vehicles, so that, in the future, the area can be enjoyed by everyone.

Lower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon PapworthLower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon Papworth

At this wintry time of the year, most life in and around the pond is dormant.

Some of the insects even produce their own antifreeze to survive the freezing temperatures! We are looking forward to watching this pond recover and thrive.

My plan is to get a local school involved with the project. Ponds are a hugely useful educational tool. Children can discover the mysteries of nature and the horrors of pollution, all from a small area of water.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped make this project a success.

Lower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon PapworthLower Knapp Pond. Picture: Simon Papworth

It is a great example of how a bit of hard work and determination from a small group of people can make a difference.

We live in times of reduced funding for councils, and we are in danger of losing areas of value that can no longer be maintained properly. Instead of accepting that future generations may not enjoy some of the simple pleasures of nature that we have experienced, we could all get involved in volunteer projects, even if it is only a couple of hours each month. The future needs us to act, now.

To read more features from East Devon Resident, click here.

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