Q&A with Richard Waddingham’s nephew

Can you describe the farm?

The farm is in a lovely location up in the headwaters of the rivers Bure and Glaven at Briston – not far from the north Norfolk coast. It’s good soil there, we’ve got about 600 acres and as well as the farmed land there’s of course the ponds, a stream, two wildflower meadows and some woodland – we’ve also got two county wildlife sites. Crisscrossed over the farm is a network of hedges, some quite broad, which connect up all these wildlife features at a landscape scale.

How would you describe the way in which Richard Waddingham (your uncle) has managed the farm?

First and foremost his priority has been to ensure the farm makes a profit. He isn’t a hobby farmer, he is a farmer whose hobby is birds. He realised he could create some really good habitats for birds on the farm, especially given its location. He kept a record of all the visiting and nesting birds on the farm, and over the years he fine-tuned how he was managing those habitats depending on what he could see was working. The overgrown ponds of course became his first target to try and recreate the open water he had seen at the newly opened Slimbridge reserve for wildfowl.

Like many farms in Norfolk – his land has ponds – how many roughly? 

There’s just over 40 ponds on the farm – some quite small which dry up in the summer but most have water all year round and they’re often quite steep sided.

And what was it about these ponds that your Uncle became aware of?

So my uncle quickly realised that what started off as something for the ducks and geese was giving a real boost to a much wider range of birds and wildlife. The birds can use the ponds for shelter during harsh weather and they are good source of food – both seeds and insects. He found that fish and many rare plants had somehow survived through the overgrown years and large numbers of great crested newts were breeding – he even saw an otter. Having so many ponds between the headwaters of two rivers meant that they could be a staging post for wildlife to get across the fields from one river to the other – he found one pond with eels in it. The ponds were supporting a huge range of species and massive numbers of insects. Some of these insects are pollinators and some are the natural predators of the pests that the surrounding fields were vulnerable to. They’re like wildlife oases in the middle of intensive agriculture desert.

So how many ponds have been restored or cleared and managed now? 

We have about 25 ponds that have been restored and are now part of our regular management rota – so that’s just over half the ponds on the farm.

What does the on-going management involve?

It’s mainly getting in there with a chainsaw to keep the trees under control but allowing undergrowth like brambles. This lets the light in and we often end up leaving some small trees for shelter on the northern side of the pond. We also maintain a good wide grass margin round the ponds, both to act as a buffer to the farming operations and it is a good bit of habitat in its own right. Every 5-10 years we need to hire a digger to dredge out mud and sometimes rushes, so we keep a decent depth of open water.

Have you seen the benefits?

My favourite piece of evidence is the list of bird species that my uncle kept. He was farming at a time when there was a dramatic decline in farmland birds, however the way he was managing the farm was not only maintaining bird populations but increasing them. When you stand by a pond in summer it’s really striking how much wildlife is alive around you, the noise of birds and dragonflies flitting about. The thing that really pleased my uncle was when UCL and Carl Sayer got involved and started doing research on the ponds which explained the science behind what was happening and proved with numbers the conclusions my uncle had himself reached by careful observation and standing in a pond for 40 years. This combination of peer reviewed published research along with long term practical application is what makes the benefits of pond management so persuasive.

So what does this demonstrate about wildlife conservation and intensive agriculture – can they go together?

Yes, definitely. I find there’s something conceptually really appealing about farmland ponds. They take up very little agricultural land while supporting a huge concentration of wildlife. Set in a landscape of intensive agriculture they allow wildlife to thrive while at the same time we can maintain food security and profitability.

What would you say to other farmers who have ponds on their land?

Appreciate you’ve got a really valuable asset in these ponds. The techniques for restoring and maintaining them are very simple and low-cost. Even if your ponds have been filled in there is life buried in the ground dormant – just waiting for the chance to see the sun again. The great thing is that this is now not just one farmer’s experiment, it has been backed up by ground-breaking science and now there’s loads of case studies of others trying it successfully. I really hope that ponds feature prominently in the new agri-environment scheme.

How do you think your Uncle would respond to the way in which his ideas have been put into practise elsewhere and the recognition that restoring and managing ponds is good for wildlife and good for business?

In the last few years he has won some awards but he’s always been interested in people and sharing ideas that work – so seeing his techniques more widely adopted (and working) has been the most gratifying thing for him. His wider message is that this is not just for farmers though, he is keen that the wider public appreciate nature is not just something for wildlife reserves. Very few people have a farm to implement things at this scale but his message is that we are all part of a bigger picture with nature and we can all do things in our everyday lives that will help if we pause to notice and observe the wildlife around us.