Protect the Mandarin ducks at Sandy Heath and Heath Extension ponds
Lynda Cook, Heath & Hampstead Society
- Credit: Polly Hancock
Ponds draw us like magnets, and when possible, we stop and sit at the edges and gaze at reflections of surrounding trees and vegetation.
The Sandy Heath ponds lie upon the middle slopes, they glimmer through the trees in grey and purple tints.
Drawing closer to the ponds, tall oaks appear to grow out of the water lending a dreamlike quality to the scene.
The water’s deep colours are caused by the layer of iron oxide (part of the Bagshot sands), known as iron pan, which lies below the surface.
The depth of the ponds varies, depending on the seasons, since they are fed by rainfall rather than springs. The smaller ones often dry up during the summer months becoming bogs which provide habitat for many invertebrates.
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On a particularly cold winter’s day when temperatures are below freezing, ice will form in painterly swirls, the dark streaks a result of the iron residue rising to the surface.
Chinese Mandarin ducks arrive in early spring, the males brilliantly patterned and coloured, as if by the brush of a design artist, each male is protective and vigilant and stays close to his quietly plumed female.
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Usually, peacefulness emanates from the ponds, however, this past year the ambiance around the iron pan ponds has changed, people and dogs now cluster around the ponds particularly on weekends, many sticks are thrown into the ponds for the dogs to jump in and catch, the courting ducks are rudely interrupted by swimming dogs, and again and again they flee to the uncertain safety of the rushes.
The Seven Sisters Ponds are found on the Heath Extension, which exists as part of Hampstead Heath thanks to the farsightedness of Henrietta Barnett who, when she learned of plans to extend the Northern Line from Hampstead Tube Station to Golders Green, realised that it would be followed by extensive building.
She foresaw that the large open fields and hedgerows would be lost to the detriment of all, and so she tirelessly campaigned and raised money and eventually was able to add over 80 acres to the main Heath.
The ponds on the Heath Extension are home to waterfowl and provide an ideal habitat for the moorhens, and all types of ducks.
Countless insects and invertebrates live on and in them, and in spring, as the frogs start their loud and hoarse calls, the predator, the silent grey heron stands and waits for its daily meal, moving with long neck crunched as it observes its prey.
As winter ends and the sun gleams on the water, green and yellow butterflies flutter over the ponds and as summer approaches brilliantly coloured and iridescent dragonflies swoop around the border vegetation.
The southernmost pond is unfenced but it’s advisable not to allow dogs in this pond since it is heavily polluted from building works that took place on Wildwood Road, when large quantities of oil poured into this pond which is thought to be 250 years old.
The pond below this is also unfenced and recently has experienced debris and bottles spoiling its beauty. Wire fencing protects the remaining ponds (dug out in 1902) from dog swimming; they remain tranquil and can be viewed from two paths that run along the sides.
Mallards vie with each other in the spring months to woo the one or two females, and the moorhens defend their nest from which they will shepherd tiny chicks back and forth in the search for food.
Our tread upon the earth this past year has grown persistent and heavier, and we have, perhaps contrary to expectations, intruded deeply into undergrowth and wild life sanctuaries.
We need everything that nature offers us but we have also depleted it as over this past year we have been drawn to the outside world of plants and trees and ponds, growing newly aware of what we once ignored.
However, along with our growing need of nature, we must protect that which gives us everything. The ponds on Hampstead Heath epitomise this. Usually they do very well without our help, but with regard to the dug out ponds on the Heath Extension it is necessary to dredge one or two, so that they don’t dry out completely.
Subsequently they will refill and the waterfowl will return, then we enjoy and benefit from seeing them. But we cannot continue to pollute them or harass the inhabitants.
- Lynda Cook is from The Heath & Hampstead Society.