Pond life in our forests

Reflections concerning Hatchet and lesser known ponds in the New Forest 

Mark and Hugh writer and cartoonistThis week's musings by Mark with cartoon by Hugh

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Water. The stuff of life.

We humans are made up of about sixty percent water. We can survive for weeks without food but just days without water. The sun is both our friend and enemy, on a hot day it can drive us crackers with thirst.

(At the time of writing, life-saving waterholes, sometimes referred to as pubs are also imminently open - wonderful news indeed!)

We need to be grateful too because as everyone knows, the sun creates the clouds and then the gift of rain that gives us our rivers, streams and ponds.   When I lived in Singapore there were public health notices everywhere exhorting us to place a drop of oil on any standing water. The thin film would prevent mosquito larvae from breathing and consequently reduce the incidence of the deadly malaria. Thankfully we don’t need to do the same here but, if you take a careful look at the shallows of a Forest pond, you will almost certainly see the tell-tale flick-flack motion of a mosquito larva as it makes its way from the safety of the murky bottom towards the surface for air.  

Aquatic life in our Forest. There’s more to ponds than just somewhere to feed the ducks.

Our lovely Forest is dotted with ponds, some of which are easily accessible, others less so. Possibly the most well-known and certainly the most popular, is Hatchet Pond. The other weekend there were many swimmers and canoeists having a lovely time both in and on the water. Ice creams were licked, ducks and swans fed and suntans topped up.  

Personally, I went for a walk to one of the lesser known ponds which is a short walk from the Royal Oak at Hilltop. It was deserted and I was greeted by utter silence; I find it incredibly calming to stop and stare for a while with just nature for company. I sat in the welcome shade of a small copse of stunted trees at the water’s edge, nearby was a crumpled reflective collar of the type worn by ponies. Clearly this was a stopping point for more than the occasional solitary human.

There was no ice cream van.

 I always find that once I have stopped, when I have put the map away and taken the weight off my feet, that’s when I begin to see and hear the insects. They were all around the water, hovering above it, skating upon or swimming in it.

Consider the incredible dragonfly. They’ve been around for a while; fossils show that they were flying on this earth of ours around three hundred million years ago. This beats the dinosaurs by one hundred million and birds by one hundred and fifty million. Its eggs hatch into larvae which then live under water for around two years; up to five in colder waters.

Then at some signal, unknown to us feeble humans, the larva climbs a reed and incredibly, doesn’t suffocate! This creature which has for the past few years lived underwater is suddenly able to breathe air! It then slowly emerges from its ugly outer sheath to become a delicate and diaphanous dragonfly, if you happen to see a creature perched, seemingly immobile on a reed at the edge of a pond, perhaps stop for a bit, you might be witness to this incredible transformation.

Suddenly, a pond dwelling, gill breathing, bottom feeder more used to crawling around in silty pond mud, turns, as if by magic, into a darting, iridescent (and if you’re a mosquito, deadly) beauty. Not bad for a morning’s work. When watching these creatures fly, (sometimes at speeds in excess of forty miles per hour) I often wonder if they were the inspiration for a certain Igor Sikorsky, the man who invented the helicopter.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness; well it is for our plants and insects.

One of our lesser known ponds is inaccessible as it’s in someone’s garden. Actually a spring, it is the source of the Beaulieu River. If you study an Ordnance Survey map closely, you’ll get pretty close to it.  

We are very fortunate because the vast majority of our Forest ponds are unpolluted and it’s a shame that many others, outside our region, are not so clean. The sad fact is that pollution is almost always driven by human activity and there isn’t a great deal of that in our Forest. This does mean though that we have some rather rare fauna and flora, the Fairy Shrimp is found in only a handful of other locations in the UK. The Tadpole Shrimp is rarer still. When ponds are full these creatures lay drought-proof eggs, when the ponds dry up, these eggs lie dormant in the mud until the rain arrives. Soon after they hatch these tiny and rare creatures quickly lay again and the cycle is repeated. I don’t know about you but I’ll never look at a dried-up pond in the same way again. There is flora here in the Forest ponds that is so sensitive to pollution that in other parts of the UK it has completely disappeared. These plants are so rare! Perhaps the next time you see something growing at the edge of a Forest pond, try to identify it. You might just find that it can’t be found anywhere outside our Forest. How special is that?

Excalibur

As for the cartoon which as always was photographed and designed in magnificent style by Hugh; he was stood facing North East. The location of the pond is 199022, enjoy!

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