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Hunting for ghosts in the farmed landscape

What better way to spend an autumn evening than to light the fire, pour a glass of something delicious and travel back in time with some old maps to hunt for ‘ghosts’ in the farmed landscape.

Old maps have much to tell us about the past but they also point to some pretty handy conservation tips for the future. While there is nothing quite like handling a real map, our favourite ‘time machine’ has to be the side-by-side georeferenced map viewer, hosted by The National Library of Scotland:

It offers the chance to compare a variety of maps from as far back as 1885 with a function which allows you to slide between the old map and modern satellite imagery of the farm. My favourite map to use is the Victorian six-inch version, which handily has all ponds coloured in blue.

What comes across most starkly when comparing maps (aside from the unending march of development) is the ghosts of old field boundaries and lost ponds. The two are interlinked. Our formerly mixed farming landscape left a legacy of smaller fields with stock-hedged boundaries, many of which would have contained a pond to water livestock or plough horses. Along with the post-war incentives to remove hedgerows came incentives to drain land. These two ‘efficiencies’ were often combined; ponds were filled in with the debris of grubbed-out hedgerows. The result is a landscape of fewer fields, fewer hedge boundaries and fewer ponds.

The old maps present a clear road map to achieving greater biodiversity and landscape connectivity and are a fantastic place to start when planning conservation on a farm. As land managers we know it is important to ensure the climate-related drive for tree planting results in trees ‘in the right place’. Replacing the ghost hedgerows - and, importantly, the ghosts of mature hedgerow trees (which are in fact still declining in our landscape) seems an obvious quick-win. No land is taken out of production, no existing habitats lost or damaged; the dots are simply there, waiting to be joined up.

Ghost ponds are even more exciting. In my experience most farms have at least one, some even have three or four in one field. These may still be visible as a “ghostly” mark in the landscape – a damp depression (see image below), an area of poor crop establishment, or difference in soil colour. Researchers at University College London have proved that these buried “ghost ponds” are not completely lost. Even centuries-old ponds can be resurrected from historic seeds lying dormant underneath intensively cultivated agricultural fields.

Restoring these old map features is an act of conservation both in the biodiversity sense and the landscape heritage sense.

What lurks beneath

Our work creating and restoring newt ponds with Natural England over the past two years has shown us that ponds are like time capsules in many ways. At a pond we restored in Madingley, our efforts were rewarded by a delightful bloom of water crowfoot, a species previously unrecorded at the site. The pond had once been a bottle dump and we believe its seed had lain dormant in the sediment found in Victorian glass bottles dredged from the pond.

In addition to what persists in their seed banks, we’ve discovered that local history, myths and legends can also emerge from their murky depths!

Nil Well in West Cambs was thought to have been a ‘chalybeate’, a sacred iron-rich spring, valued for its curative properties since Roman times. Little is known about the history of this well, but the name ‘Nil’ is associated with fairies. Another pond, which is part of an ancient earthwork on a hilltop near Castle Camps, was rumoured to have an ‘unnamed soul’ buried there. In the fens, Doddington village pond was understood to have been used for the disposal of the bodies of plague victims. At Stow-cum-Quy in Cambridgeshire there are ‘coprolite’ ponds - originally excavated to make fertiliser. Once believed to have been fossilised dinosaur dung, it is now understood these phosphate-rich seams are the remains of marine molluscs deposited during the Jurassic. These ponds are now a SSSI and Freshwater Habitats Trust flagship pond site. In Epping Forest there is said to be a suicide pond which lures people to an untimely death. And one moat I visited recently in Essex is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl who very sadly drowned there.

As stoic as we farm advisers are, we don’t touch such historic ponds. You never know if the rumours may turn out to be true…

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