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Water in the Garden

A Wildlife Tip Sheet™ from Jacobi Jayne & Company

by ornithologist David Tomlinson

No bird garden can be complete without water. Not only do all our garden birds need to drink regularly, most are also enthusiastic bathers. Birds depend on their feathers for warmth and insulation, as well as flight, so feather care is vital. This is why you will see birds bathing enthusiastically even on freezing winter days.

Artificial Ponds

Ponds are arguably the best way to provide water, and natural ponds undoubtedly the best of the lot. Alas, not many of us have the good fortune to have a natural pond in our garden, so we have to create one artificially. There are, of course, a number of ways of doing this. The simplest, and ideal for a small garden, is to use a plastic pond of the sort sold at garden centres. These ponds are tough, well able to stand up to frosts and freezing weather, and only need a hole to be dug for them. Birds like shallow areas where they can drink and bathe, so if buying a prefabricated pond make sure that its design is suitable.

There is nothing like a patch of water for transforming a familiar view. Even a relatively small pond will make a tremendous difference to the appearance of the landscape and its value for wildlife. But perhaps the most appealing part of the whole business is how swiftly the transformation can take place. Get digging today and you could have rippling water by tomorrow.

Planning the Pond

If you have the space, then a larger pond may well appeal. As long as your planned pond is within the boundaries of your garden, and does not depend on damming or abstracting water from a stream or river, you should be able to construct it without planning consent. However, if your garden is big and your pond-plans more ambitious, it is a good idea to speak to the local planning authority, just in case.

Safety for Children

If children use your garden you need to consider their safety around the pond. For young children it is necessary to fence off the pond completely to prevent them reaching it without supervision.

Creating the Larger Pond

If you are planning a bigger pond, then the best advice is to use a pond-construction specialist. Get as many quotes as possible and also insist on seeing some of the work the contractor has already done. The more experienced the contractor, the less they are likely to charge since they will have the confidence to do the job quickly and get it right first go.

All ponds need to hold water. If your local subsoil is impermeable clay, then there should be no need for liners. If your soil is permeable, then a membrane liner is essential. The possibilities range from polythene sheet (the cheapest) to butyl rubber (the most expensive and longest lasting).

PVC sheeting is the most frequently used since it has the advantage of being stronger and more flexible than polythene. Laying a liner is not a job to undertake yourself - the help of a professional is essential for all but the smallest pond.

The Perfect Pond

The perfect pond for wildlife should be as varied in shape and form as possible, with bays and gently sloping banks. It is a great mistake to make a wildlife pond too deep. Shallow ponds, less than 2 feet deep, have the greatest wildlife value. Natural plant colonisation of a new pond is usually surprisingly rapid, especially if the pond is dug close to another wetland site. A pond dug in the winter is likely to be well colonised by the end of the following summer.

Avoiding the Invaders

However, if you do plan to give nature a helping hand, avoid introducing any non-native species. Certain native plants, such as water lilies and reed mace, often create problems in the long term since they are invasive and will take over the water area. Be cautious about planting trees close to you pond: when mature they may create unwanted shade, while fallen leaves may eventually cause problems. Remember never to use fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides in the catchment area of your pond.

From Frogs to Dragonflies

It's not just birds that will be attracted to your new pond. As many as a dozen species of dragonflies may be drawn in. Identify them with the help of a Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Steve Brooks and illustrated by Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing, 18.95). Frogs and toads are also surprisingly quick to find suitable new breeding ponds. If you want to attract native wildlife, avoid stocking your pond with goldfish or carp: they are major pond predators.


For those with small gardens with no scope or space for a pond, there's nothing to beat a birdbath. Some species prefer raised baths, others like them sunk into the ground, while many are not too fussy. Jacobi Jayne markets a variety of birdbaths, ranging from the complete Stoneware Birdbath Kit, that includes a 14-inch stoneware birdbath, together with holder and stand, to the Wildlife Water Bath with sloping sides for birds and many tiny terraces for thirsty insects.

Regular Scrubbing Required

The most important thing about birdbaths is to scrub them regularly - this means four or five times a week in the summer and at least once a week in the winter. Birds don't like drinking dirty water, or bathing in it, any more than we do. During spells of hot summer weather you may well find enthusiastic bathing parties of birds (and particularly young starlings) will empty a bath several times a day.

Running Water

Running water proves as attractive to birds as it does so us humans. A simple system that is sure to keep your garden birds happy is the Water Dripper. Jacobi Jayne markets three types of Dripper: all are simple to install on your birdbath, and are tough and reliable. Using a Dripper will also ensure that your bath is kept topped up during periods of peak usage. You can choose from a Ground Dripper, designed for use with a sunken birdbath, the Small Dripper, which clasps to fit birdbaths up to 1-inch thick, or the Large Dripper, which is ideal for stone baths up to 2-inches thick.

Winter Water

Water is just as important to birds in the winter as it is in the summer. On cold winter days, it is good practice to empty your birdbath in the late afternoon, before it starts to freeze, and top it up with water again the next morning. It may be quite a chore, but the birds will certainly appreciate your efforts.

David Tomlinson

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