In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a group of bungalows were built on farm land named “Deane’s Meadow”. This land is adjacent to Station Road (B3176), just south of Alexandria Road. The development of “Deans Mead”, as it is now called, destroyed the footpath that historically ran from Sidmouth Station (closed 1967),through a field called “Path Field”, to Peaslands Road. The East Devon District Council (EDDC) retained a small triangle of land adjacent to Station Road, and rerouted the footpath on this land. The Sid Vale Association (SVA) persuaded the EDDC to make the area a small nature reserve, with a pond. Google map has it marked as “Knapp Pond Nature Area”.
The pond was concrete lined, about 500 square foot in size, and completed in 1992. Mains water, controlled by a stopcock, was used to not only fill the pond, but also feed a marginal garden through three shallow gullies. In the rainy season, the pond water level rose, causing the stopcock to halt the flow of mains water. When the water level dropped in the summer, the pond received a regular supply of mains water.
By all accounts, the pond was well loved by the local community. Three “stepping stones” had been built, giving access to children to gaze into the pond, and net tadpoles in the spring.
Unfortunately, over the years, due to lack of management, the pond became so overgrown with plants that there was barely any free water for other creatures.
In early 2018, I began to research this neglected pond. I found that a 4-5 inch thick dense mat of Australian Swamp Stonecrop ( Crassula helmsii) covered more than half the pond. This plant is listed in the UK as highly invasive, and illegal to remove from a site, without a licence. However, the plant could be killed by covering it and keeping it away from light for six months.
When I contacted the EDDC, they were, initially, unaware of the existence of the pond, but became very supportive when I told them my plans.
A group of volunteers were found, and by bribing them with regular coffee and biscuits, we set about clearing the pond completely. It was quite a task, involving over one hundred “person hours”. An electric pump helped reduce the water level, but most of the clearing was “hard labour” using saws for the rhizome roots, knives and secateurs for the vegetation, and buckets for the deep, dense mud. The carpet of Australian Stonecrop was collected with care, and covered with a tarpaulin, along with a forest of contaminated “Yellow Flag Iris”, “Greater” and “Lesser Reedmace”,and “Purple Loosestrife”. The Stonecrop was capable of growing vegetatively, from the smallest fragment of leaf or root, and it had entwined virtually every plant in the pond. We managed to save a few examples of the original plants, by hand washing and cleaning very carefully. Eventually, on 13th October 2018 the pond was completely empty. The deepest section was over three foot, and the sides were sloping, with no shelves for making planting easy.
In 1992, the SVA had used pond baskets for the original plants. 26 years later they were looking rather broken, but repairable with plastic ties. These were used to replant what we had rescued. The pond was partially filled with mains water, but as soon as the autumn rains arrived, we turned the mains supply off. Tap water is richer in unwanted chemicals and nitrates compared with rain water. After two weeks we spotted the pond’s first visitor, a “Lesser Water Boatman”.
As is usual with new ponds, a severe algal bloom occurred in the Springs of 2019 and 2020. We used nets of barley straw to help control the problem. As barley straw breaks down, it releases humic acid. This reacts with oxygen and sunlight to produce hydrogen peroxide, which does not kill algae, but inhibits growth. This trick was worth the effort until the pond plants established themselves. Donated water lilies were planted in 2019. Their broad leaves reduce the amount of light reaching the water, which reduces algal growth. More significantly, as the various plant root systems grow, they take increasing amounts of nitrates from the water. The two things that problem algae and duckweed love, are light and nitrate rich water. The pond is now much clearer and healthier. It is thriving with palmate newts, frogs and beetles, all breeding well. It is a nursery for dragon and damsel fly larvae. Caddis fly larvae, always a good indicator of a healthy pond, are thriving, as are multiple varieties of snails, leeches and worms, amongst others.
In 2018, apart from emptying the pond, volunteers started to clear a large area of bramble and ivy. The Reserve had received no attention for years, so there was a lot to do. As a group, we decided to encourage the growth of native wild flowers, and create a natural area that the local community could once again enjoy. Yellow Rattle seeds have been sown in a wild flower area just above the pond. The grass in this space is cut by hand in the autumn, and mowed once in the spring. Any cut grass is cleared to prevent nutrients feeding the soil. Hedges are cut by hand or using small machinery. The result is that natural wild flowers have returned, because they have been allowed to. We counted almost one hundred different species of flowering plants in the Reserve in 2021, including ten in the pond itself.
The Sidmouth Arboretum group planted Mulberry, Quince, Medlar, and Plum trees in 2014, and more recently, Apple and Pear trees. There is a large Scots Pine, two beautiful weeping Silver Birches, and a Black Poplar, UK’s rarest native tree.
An Insect Hotel, and two “wood pens” are sited on the southern border, to give shelter to small creatures during the cold months of the year.
The rebirth of this small area has only been achieved by numerous volunteers giving their free time, and working hard, to make a better place for the community to enjoy. People have donated many plants, and local businesses have been generous in their support and advice. Visitors have been complementary with their comments.
I must make a special mention of Mary Munslow Jones, a keen field botanist who was a very active member of the SVA in 1992, and encouraged the creation of the Reserve. She was an active writer about wild flowers in the area, but is, sadly no longer with us. I was lucky enough to meet her daughter Helen, who generously donated some funds, to help rescue the area that her mother once enjoyed. I am sure that Mary would be delighted to be still linked to this beautiful space.
Funds are always required for these projects, whether it is for wild flower seed, or fuel to take the trusty trailer to the tip. The project has been self-funded, with no grants taken. The rebirth of the “Lower Knapp Pond Reserve” is a wonderful example of community spirit. Thank you to everyone involved