In 2016 RAGS was awarded £50,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund together with smaller grants from the Mendip Hills AONB Unit, Wessex Water and ARG-UK, to restore a network of dilapidated ponds across the AONB in an effort to reconnect a series of isolated populations of great crested newts.
There are a large number of traditional dew-ponds on the Mendips, although sadly most are suffering from severe neglect and while they would once have provided good habitat for great crested newts, this is no longer the case. The crested newt population across the AONB is highly fragmented with newts existing in small pockets, long distances from one another and completely isolated from neighbouring populations. The object of the project is to reconnect these disparate populations by restoring ponds between them to act as stepping stones, thereby greatly increasing the potential for each population to persist into the future.
The normal dispersal distance for crested newts is 500m; therefore the ponds that have been selected for repair are each located within 500m of another, to create a network that newts can follow, allowing them to interact with neighbouring populations.
The maps show the ponds within the project area, currently occupied by newts, with 250m radii superimposed on them. Where two of the radii overlap this indicates two (or more) ponds that are close enough to allow interaction between the two newt populations. Where there is no overlap, populations are isolated and consequently vulnerable to local extinction. The first map shows the current state of connectivity between the newt populations while the lower map shows the expected extent of connectivity between the newts after all the ponds have been restored. Download the maps here
Since the receipt of the funding RAGS, together with an army of volunteers and building contractors, have been busy implementing the project.
All the ponds that have been selected for restoration are man-made constructions, built from stone, with retaining walls and cobbled bases. Very few are in a suitable condition to provide opportunities for newts, having either been deliberately filled in or simply neglected.
Restoration proceeds in two phases. The first is the emptying of the detritus from the pond. Here, volunteers have been crucial, and throughout the period since the grants were awarded RAGS has been organising ‘volunteer task days’ to assist with the clearance of the ponds. The response has been magnificent.
To date a total of 17 volunteer days have been arranged and 13 ponds have been completely cleared ready for the second phase of the restoration process which is the repair of the stonework by contractors.
Attendance at the volunteer task days has exceeded our expectations with an average of 14 volunteers coming along to help on each occasion. The largest number we have had so far is 22! The work is arduous with many tons of rocks and mud needing to be removed by hand from the ponds so we are extremely grateful to all those that have helped.
The second phase of the project has also proceeded well. The amount of work that is required varies between the individual ponds, but in several examples all the cobbles in the base have required re-setting, while in a couple of cases the retaining walls have needed to be completely rebuilt. In every case, the stonework across the entire pond has required repointing. All in all it’s a major undertaking.
The building work is being undertaken by Tina Bath supported by staff from Green Mantle Ecosophy Ltd and occasional RAGS volunteers. Stonework repairs on each pond begin with the removal of all loose cobbles in the base and loose stone in the retaining walls. Damaged mortar and soil is then raked out from between the cobbles in readiness for re-setting and repointing. We have been careful to use the original materials in our restoration works; cobbles are reset using lime putty and all the repointing is done using lime mortar. The material is more complicated to work with that conventional putties and mortars and cannot be used when there is a risk of frost, which delayed progress a little during the cold spring of 2017. However, despite the late start, eight ponds have been completed and a further three are currently underway.
Walkers using the footpaths around the east of Cheddar Gorge and in the vicinity of either Draycott Sleights or Westbury Quarry may have seen work underway, or completed ponds.
Project Update April 2018
The finishing touches are currently being put to the last pond to be restored under the grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
This funding has enabled the complete restoration of fifteen derelict stone-built farm ponds. Each pond contributes to the development of a network of ponds providing connectivity between currently isolated populations of great crested newts.
RAGS are indebted to an army of volunteers for digging out tonnes of silt and debris from the ponds and to Tina Bath and Green Mantle who were contracted to undertake the stonework repairs. But volunteer input does not end there. The expectation is that the newly-restored ponds will now be colonised by great crested newts and we are keen to document their spread. Four teams of volunteer surveyors have been assembled to survey all the ponds throughout the spring of 2018.
Springtime is the time when crested newts emerge from hibernation and return to ponds to breed. The breeding season begins when the animals enter the water, usually in late February and March and continues until all the females have finished spawning in May or June, this is also the peak season for surveying for the species. There are a number of techniques that can be employed to determine the presence of crested newts in a pond. The animals are nocturnal and their activity can often be observed at night simply be looking in the pond by torchlight. However if the water is turbid and visibility is reduced then traps can be set for the animals. Newt traps are easy to construct simply consisting of a two litre plastic bottle that has had the spout cut off and inverted. The effect is similar to a crab creel, where the animal can enter through a funnel but cannot then find the small exit to get back out. Additionally, spawning mops can be deployed. Female newts lay each egg individually on a submerged grass blade or similar leaf before using their hind feet to gently fold the leaf over the egg and stick it down for protection. A spawning mop is simply a bundle of ribbons of an appropriate size that the newts can use in the same way as a leaf, laying their eggs on the ribbons and folding them over. Periodic examination of the spawning mops may determine the presence of newt eggs.
At time of writing in late April 2018, palmate newts have been found in all of the restored ponds and crested newts have so far been found in three. This is an exciting result for us, demonstrating that the habitats we are creating are suitable for newts and holding the promise of further spread by the crested newts in the future.