Give wildlife access to water

House sparrows enjoying their bath today - Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-)Roving Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. This week Rowena talks us through how to give wildlife better access to water with examples of options and actions you can take.

Water is essential to life, but we don’t always stop to think about it. We switch on a tap and there’s the water for a cup of tea or coffee, a cool drink on a hot day or a bath or shower.

Wildlife shares our need for water, but are birds and animals, great and small, able to access water in our gardens?

In the recent hot spell during the 2020 lockdown, the water in our water butts ran out. The plant dish serving as a bird bath dried out too, and water levels in the wildlife pond became low. A problem in small ponds is deoxygenation, especially if leaves are decomposing at the bottom and there aren’t enough oxygenating plants. On the ground, dry earth meant fewer juicy slugs and snails – useful for my veg seedlings (if watered), but less than ideal for the thirsty hedgehogs and garden birds. Perhaps even those lucky enough to have a spring or a stream in the garden found that they were running dry.

A house sparrow enjoys the bird bath while Dapple Duck enjoys hers - Rowena Millar

A house sparrow enjoys the bird bath while Dapple Duck enjoys hers - Rowena Millar

Bird baths

Bird baths can be a life saver in dry times. Tap water is OK for birds – you can let it stand before filling baths if they are put off by additives such as chlorine.

A bird bath needs to feel safe, and so it must have good visibility but be within fluttering distance of cover too. I have put mine on the open lawn near a thorny bush, so that birds can hop in easily but cats are deterred.

The top is a heavy terracotta plant dish with a stone as a perch, standing on a terracotta strawberry planter. Terracotta is easy for bird feet to grip onto, but it dries out faster than our previous plastic plant dish bird bath, which became brittle and cracked after a while.

I’ve noticed that some birds relieve themselves in the bath (or as they fly above it), so it is vital to clean and refill bird baths regularly to avoid disease. Birds visiting our bird bath have ranged from diminutive blue tits to portly wood pigeons and wary crows, with blackbirds, robins, dunnocks and house sparrows as the most frequent users.

Make a mini pond

An alternative bird drinking station/bath could be a dustbin lid or similar container sunk into the ground, complete with rocks to stand on and a water plant or two. This can also serve as a hedgehog drinking bowl, and is very useful for thirsty insects including bees and butterflies. A mini pond is the ideal solution in a small garden where it’s impossible to dig yourself a deep and extensive lake. Fill your mini pond with rainwater if possible. Otherwise, it’s best to let tap water stand for a day before using it. Greater water boatmen (backswimmers) and lesser water boatmen, pond skaters, pond beetles and other creatures will walk or fly in from elsewhere like magic. Smaller creatures such as daphnia may arrive attached to the legs of larger minibeasts such as water boatmen! See the report about this in New Scientist magazine.

If all else fails, at least put down a hedgehog water bowl, but making a mini pond is easier than you might think. Here is a simple guide.

Children, ponds and escape routes

Despite our worries, small children and ponds can and do go together, and the dangers can be overcome. What could be more fun than building your own pond together as a family and then spending happy hours pond dipping?

Build a full-size garden pond

Children will particularly enjoy finding pretty stones and moss to decorate the edges of the pond, and pieces of wood or rocks to act as an escape route for floundering creatures that need to climb out.

Most children I know are well supervised for most of the day, but in case of accidents while they are young and vulnerable, ponds can be netted over securely. If you have a safe pond, you and the children won’t lose out on the thrill of seeing tadpoles grow, finding a newt or watching pond skaters walk on the surface of the water.

Don’t net ponds loosely, as birds and animals can easily get into trouble (hedgehogs and young blackbirds are particularly adept at becoming entangled) – and a loose net may not protect small children anyway.

Wildlife escape routes

Please leave enough room under a net for frogs and newts to creep in and out. Even if you need to put safety first, try to have a place where dragonflies and damselflies can access the water and lay their eggs. The pond will attract a host of other wildlife, including mammals coming to drink at shallow edges. An escape route or shallow end is important for birds as well as hedgehogs, as feathers can become waterlogged and birds can drown. This is particularly likely in the case of inexperienced fledglings, which get into all sorts of scrapes.

I have often seen floundering insects that appreciate something to grab hold of before they drown. Sometimes I’ve got it wrong and rescued a beetle or a spider that didn’t want to be rescued. Such creatures will beetle (or spider) their way back into the pond again, so if you’re not sure, leave rescued wildlife nearby. It’s surprising how many invertebrates belong in water and will find their way there.

Have you ever considered that dragonfly and damselfly larvae need escape routes too? When they are ready for that miraculous moment one sunny day when the neck of the monstrous suit of armour splits open and a glorious imago emerges to dry its four wings in the sunshine, each insect needs a strong stem to climb up. Without suitable vertical stems, reeds or rushes to support them, the unfortunate would-be dragonflies die in the water – a very sad end after possibly years of being an ugly bug living in the mud and silt at the bottom. Let them emerge, fly and mate in their full splendour, for the sake of the next generation of dragonflies!

Ponds as larders for wildlife

Ponds may be unpopular with some people because mosquitoes and midges emerge from them, not just the caddis-flies, mayflies, damselflies and dragonflies which don’t bite us. If biting insects put you off from making a pond, remember that not all of them attack us – males and certain non-biting species don’t. More importantly, the long list of mosquito and midge predators should help you change your mind. Removing part of the food chain means removing the other wildlife, too.

Top of the predator list are bats, which snatch biting insects from the air – or the surface of the water – at dusk (garden bats may include the tiny but voracious common and soprano pipistrelles, the larger noctule, Daubenton’s bat, which specialises in ponds and rivers (also larger than pipistrelles), and the particularly adorable (to me) brown long-eared bat. All these can eat an extraordinary number of emerging gnats and depend upon an abundance of insects.

The presence of bats is a good indicator of the general health of the local environment. All species are protected and they need our help.

Other predators of biting insects include older tadpoles and adult frogs, toads and newts, adult and larval water beetles of various types, adult and larval dragonflies and damselflies, other predatory flies, water spiders, greater water boatmen, and a host of birds including swallows, house martins, flycatchers, wagtails and tits. Others, such as robins and blackbirds, will eat them too if they can reach from the shallows.

So let’s celebrate our interdependent natural world by including a crucial element in our wildlife gardens – water!