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Autumnwatch 2019

It's Halloween week and Autumnwatch is back, celebrating the very best of the UK's wildlife.

About the programme

In this four-part series, Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Gillian Burke and Iolo Williams profile our stunning wilderness in its most technicolour season - autumn.

To find out more go to the BBC programme page .

Autumnwatch 2019 - Presenters - Hero image BBC
A frog emerges from pond weed

Create your own mini wildlife pond

Turn your garden into an ideal watering spot for creatures great and small. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a big garden you may have plenty of room for a substantial pond but you only need a small amount of ground space to build a mini pond which will still be hugely beneficial to wildlife and give you the reward of observing the comings and goings of the different creatures attracted to it.

You can build a mini pond at any time of year, but winter or very early spring is a good time as you won’t have to wait long before you should start to see some signs of life. You might have to look hard to spot the first visible inhabitants as they are likely to be some of the tiny creatures that feed on the microscopic algae that will quickly colonise the mini pond. Hopefully you will find that it becomes an increasingly rich and complex ecosystem. But enjoying watching your mini pond develop is not the only good reason for making one.

Ponds are a vitally important source of habitat

Common newt - Triturus Vulgaris

Common newt - Triturus Vulgaris

In terms of the number and variety of different species that they support, ponds are the richest of all forms of freshwater habitat and even a small pond can support a huge range of species from the microscopic up to large mammals for whom they can be a vital source of drinking water. Because they are generally shallow, they also warm quickly during the spring months, providing the perfect nursery environment for a range of spawning amphibians. But despite being both important and easy to accommodate in small spaces such as gardens and patios, ponds are actually in serious decline.

Why are there fewer ponds?

The number of ponds in the United Kingdom has reduced by around half over the last century and much of this loss is due to changes in land use through intensive agriculture, as well as abstraction which has served to lower the water table, leaving ponds to dry out. The classic farm pond or the pond on a village green were once common rural sights but are now much rarer. But the traditional garden pond is also in decline as gardens have generally become smaller, artificially resurfaced or repurposed for a variety of domestic uses.

Where gardens have become child-centred spaces for play this can also be coupled with concerns for child safety around water. Of course these concerns are entirely legitimate, but a mini pond is not only a lot easier to manage with small children around, it is also easy to accommodate in the corner of a seating area or tucked in a flowerbed. So, now that you want to help address the loss of this vital habitat, how do you go about making your mini pond?

How to build your mini pond​

A close-up of a mini pond
  1. The pond itself can be made from any number of water tight containers. You can make an attractive feature from salvaged items like old butler’s sinks, halved wooden barrels or tin baths but the popularity of such items means they can be expensive to acquire now. However, an equally effective mini pond can be made from a washing up bowl, a plastic storage box, or even a plastic bucket.
  2. The first thing to consider is the position of your pond – it will need some sunlight but not too much so try to position it where it will only receive direct sunlight for part of the day. This means that there will be enough light for plants to grow but not so much that the shallow water gets too warm for its inhabitants.
  3. Either dig a hole to accommodate your chosen container or position it above ground. If you are burying it, try to leave a small lip of about 1cm (1/2“) or so to avoid ground dwelling insects from falling in. If you are positioning it above ground elevate it slightly with a couple of bricks or similar, so that it is not in direct contact with the ground during very cold weather.
  4. Next, add gravel, rocks or both to the bottom of your container. This will provide hiding places for creatures as well as substrate for egg laying. You should also use either rocks, bricks or a large stick to provide a route in and out of the water. If the container is above ground you should also provide a route up to the water, again using items such as sticks, rocks or bricks.
  5. Finally, you should add plants. Native species are best and usually fairly cheap to buy, they should always be bought rather than collected from the wild though. Oxygenating plants such as hornwort or water-milfoil can simply be dropped in, small rushes or plants such as marsh marigold can be planted to provide height and climbing material, and species such as Frogbit or Creeping Jenny can be used to create surface cover and shelter. Make sure that all plants are in specialist aquatic pots and compost (which they should be sold in). If you have the space a small pile of decaying sticks and branches next to the mini pond will provide habitat and refuge too.

What can you expect to see?

A frog, half-submerged in pond water

Photo by Louis Halliwell on Unsplash

The first inhabitants of your new pond are likely to be tiny copepods and amphipods, if you look closely you should be able to see these creatures swimming jerkily around. These are all tiny species of crustacean such as daphnia, cyclops and freshwater ‘shrimps’ (not actually a shrimp). They feed on algae and various forms of detritus, helping to clean the water. They are also likely to be joined by the larvae of the mosquito which can usually be observed ‘dangling’ from the water surface as they breath air, but they will soon wriggle below the surface if disturbed.

All of these tiny invertebrates also provide a valuable source of food for slightly bigger creatures. These include pond skaters and water boatman which also feed on tiny dead and dying insects. At 12-15mm (1/2 -2/3”) they should be easier to spot, especially the pond skater which can be seen ‘skating’ around supported by the water’s surface tension or meniscus. You may also see pond snails, commonly the great pond snail, whose eggs may even have been inadvertently introduced with the weed. 

Once the mini pond is a little more established it might be visited by frogs or newts. The common frog may spawn in the mini pond and, if so, this is likely to take place sometime around mid-March. Newts, the most common of which is the smooth newt, lay eggs on weed which is then wrapped around the eggs for protection. If you are lucky enough to have amphibians reproduce in your mini pond it is especially important to ensure easy access in and out of the pond so that the juvenile frogs and newts can move freely.

As summer progresses you may be lucky enough to have hedgehogs visit your garden in search of food, they will also appreciate a drink from your mini pond. The summer months will also see damselflies and even larger dragonflies drawn to the water in search of food, if you have planted taller plants such as rushes, they will use these to cling to and may even lay eggs on them.

There are a multitude of other creatures that could visit your mini pond, depending on where you live, the ease of access to the area in which your mini pond is situated and the range of trees and plants that make up the wider ecosystem.       

If you have small children, try to get them involved in constructing and monitoring your mini pond and make the most of the opportunity for them to learn about the value of the micro habitat you have created, but do remember that children should always be supervised around water at all times.

A Starling squawks and raises its wings to defend its territory

The shifting geographies of human-starling relations

A starling in the countryside is just a starling, but when it enters the city it becomes a pest. Dr Andy Morris discusses how pests exist when nature is ‘out of place’. 

Starlings provide us with a useful example of how broader understandings of nature and society have come to represent a separation in our relationship with the non-human world, a separation which is a distinct curiosity of what Bruno Latour calls ‘the modern divide’. This separation of nature and society and the relationships which serve to highlight it are a central concern of the Level 2 Geography and Environment module ‘Environment and Society’ (DD213).

A fall in numbers

A Starling Murmuration above Gretna

Walter Baxter / A murmuration of starlings at Gretna

The Common or European Starling is a familiar bird across much of Europe and whilst it is still a common bird its numbers have steadily declined across Europe since the 1980s. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but the most popular theories suggest that it is a mixture of habitat loss and the decline of its staple food of ground-dwelling invertebrates, a not unfamiliar story of decline regarding many species in the era of agricultural intensification.

However, in the UK perhaps the most striking aspect of this decline was that until the mid-1980s the starling was a bird commonly seen in huge numbers within cities where birds, drawn to the warmer urban environment, would come to roost during the winter months, twisting and pulsating in swirling patterns known as murmurations. The sight and sound of often hundreds of thousands of Starlings blackening the winter sky at dusk were a routine event in locations such as Trafalgar and Leicester Square in London, but within a few years they had all but disappeared from the cities of the British mainland. 

City dwellers

An urban starling looks out over the city

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

In 1949 the Houses of Parliament clock, commonly known as ‘Big Ben’, was slowed by more than 4 minutes under the weight of roosting starlings causing it to miss its cue to signal the start of the BBC 9 o’clock news.

Starlings began to use these cities as roosting sites from the beginning of the 20th century as human population growth and increased urbanisation led to a greater disparity between rural and urban night time temperatures in winter, making cities increasingly attractive to this intelligent and adaptable species. By the middle of the century the movements and routines of such large numbers of starlings in London began to intersect with those of the human population too. The presence of hundreds of thousands of defecating starlings led to fears of threats to human health and damage to buildings.

In 1949 the Houses of Parliament clock, commonly known as ‘Big Ben’, was slowed by more than 4 minutes under the weight of roosting starlings causing it to miss its cue to signal the start of the BBC 9 o’clock news. By 1953 the matter of London’s growing starling population was being debated within parliament and a range of speculative methods for controlling their numbers was discussed. The anxieties raised by urban starlings gained such a reputation that they even became the subject of political satire in 1954 when the popular radio comedy show The Goons, dedicated an episode to satirising the parliamentary debates.

In human terms starlings had gained the status of pest and through the 1970s and 80s buildings, pavements and street furniture became increasingly encrusted with starling poo, crowds of cinema goers and tourists in Leicester Square also being regular targets. In response Westminster council spent increasing time and money attempting to eradicate the birds, all without success. But then, over the course of a few years in the mid-1980s, the birds began to disappear for no apparent reason.

From Starling to darling

Starlings over Brighton pier

Photo by Rhys Kentish on Unsplash

Of course the starling is only one of many non-human creatures that have gained the status of pest, entangling their movements and practices with humans in ways which challenge and unsettle the supposedly human-centred order of social life. In this sense, the status of ‘pest’ is revealing of how the geographies of nature are imagined – pests exist where nature is ‘out of place’, a starling in the countryside is just a starling, it is part of nature. The starling is therefore a useful example in highlighting the way that nature is popularly imagined as spatially demarcated from the social world of the city.

As philosopher Kate Soper has said, nature is a place of return, to which we go or get back, getting back to nature is in this sense, as much about getting out of time, or away from progress, of course these are all characteristics which are conventionally at odds with the contemporary city. Perhaps then, as Geographer Noel Castree has suggested, it is less interesting to think about what nature is and of more value to think about what it is considered to be.

One of the principal ways in which this perception of nature is framed is through natural history television programming and in recent years programmes such as ‘AutumnWatch’ and SpringWatch’ have been something of a surprise success in the UK. In a 2005 episode, then presenter Bill Oddie visited a starling roost and the film footage of murmurating starlings became an instant hit, even leading to the use of similar footage for a television advert for Carling lager with the tag line ‘Belong’. At the few nature reserves where starlings were roosting crowds of people, often visiting nature reserves for the first time, began to grow just to watch murmurating starlings. At the RSPB Ham Wall reserve in Somerset one winter evening in 2015 over 1000 people turned up to witness the spectacle.         

Within the spaces that starlings now roost: the nature reserve, the seaside pier, the coastal marsh, they have been reappraised, in these spaces their fortunes have turned from pest to spectacle, they have become nature once more within the shifting spatial relations of humans and starlings. The starlings used to follow us for the warmth provided by our cities, now we follow them for the life affirming spectacle they offer us.

Meet the OU expert

Andy Morris, The Open University
Dr Andy MorrisStaff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Andy Morris, The Open University
Dr Andy MorrisStaff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies

Andy’s background is in social and cultural Geography. His main area of interest centres on the relationships between humans and wildlife, plus how they can challenge and inform understandings of nature and society. His work on modules for The Open University has included writing on subjects such as landscape, national parks, rewilding and wildlife data collection. He is currently researching starling roosts and murmuration watching in Rome, as well as working on a new Level 2 Geography module.

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