Saturday, 19 June 2010


It's a truism that water is the source of life, "aqua vitae", but we take it so much for granted: You just turn on a tap and clean water comes out. We may use this amazing resource to flush the toilet, wash the dishes or take a bath, but perhaps you only drink the bottled stuff? I bought a small bottle of water at John Lewis for my son for well over a pound. He didn't like it so I ordered a similar sized glass of milk; 45p! If I was a dairy farmer I would start a riot. Basically bottled water is 3 times as expensive as milk in a carton. This cannot be right. Apparently it takes gallons of water to make one pint of bottled "spa" water.

At Paxton Pits, the Reserve is mostly in the Great Ouse flood plain, yet we annually suffer from drought. The mix of vegetation on restored gravel is similar to that you might find in Palestine. We basically live in a desert. I have been to places in Kenya and Idaho where you can see beautiful rivers that flow through deserts, with only a margin of a few feet where plants grow, illustrating the problem of trying to make water flow up-hill, even when you have a lot of it.

My task is to slow the downhill flow of water into the River Ouse before it escapes us. My problem is that gravels are very permeable and water soaks away at an alarming rate. And we have the lowest rainfall in the UK (or there-abouts).

The gravel company next door has the opposite problem. Once you get down a few feet, water flows into the gravel as fast as you can pump it out. In the old days they just let the quarry flood and then dredged the gravel out using barges. Today they rely on huge pumps, powered by diesel or electricity, to keep the water out while they extract the gravel using excavators.

On Thursday, I had a day dominated by pumps. At Diddington Pit, Bardon Aggregates have been pumping the water away using a 9" pipe and an electric pump the size of a large van, in preparation for landscaping in the late summer. Because we have nesting waders there, we are trying to hold the water levels steady at the current height to avoid flooding their nests. If the water goes down, the islands will be accessible to foxes, so I check the levels daily and decide whether to pump or not. Unfortunately, I can only pump water out, not in, and I can't make it rain, so it's a bit of a nail-biting exercise.

On the same day I had to top-up our new education pond. using a brand new 3" pump. This uses about a litre of petrol in an hour but shifts a lot of water. 'A great bit of kit, and very cheap, but noisy. It takes about 30 minutes to set up and about the same to put it away, and we need to run it every two weeks.

By contrast, I finished the day in the Great Meadow where we run a cowboy-style wind pump. It was an absolute delight to watch it turning and see cool, clear water gushing into our ditches.

When we installed the pump, we had hoped to keep water levels so high that the fields there would become rushy with a fair amount of standing water. We had plants and wading birds in mind. However, the water levels cannot be maintained at that level, even following a flood. Even with the pump running, it is difficult to get the level much above that of the river, so we concentrate on the ditches, trying to keep some water in them at all times.

The result is like a linear garden pond. The ditches now have plants like celery-leaved buttercup, water arrowhead, water plantain, water crowfoot, lesser reedmace and flowering rush. We have dragon flies and damsel flies. This year we have a lot of frog tadpoles. The ditches have attracted a host of birds including green sandpiper, snipe, jack snipe, little egret and even great egret. Moorhens and mallards breed there. It's just a fabulous place to be; all becasue of a few inches of water. (Oh, and we also use the water for our cows.)

If you want to have as much fun as I did on Thursday, you could do worse than create a small pond in your garden. But don't put any fish in it or that's all you will have; fish.