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The transformation of Fleet Pond from murky waters to majestic scenes

PUBLISHED: 11:17 24 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:17 25 March 2015

Fleet Pond has gone through a majestic transformation - photo by Liza Toth

Fleet Pond has gone through a majestic transformation - photo by Liza Toth

Archant

Just a few years ago much of the wildlife at Fleet Pond was under serious threat of disappearing forever. Now, thanks to a £250,000 restoration grant and a wave of community support, Hampshire’s largest freshwater lake has a clear future. Viv Micklefield looks at what’s been happening there since our last visit

Even in winter the pond offers a beautiful scene - photo by Michelle SalterEven in winter the pond offers a beautiful scene - photo by Michelle Salter

Many of us have childhood memories of pond-dipping and the simple pleasure of discovering a usually hidden underwater world wriggling in our net. How great is it then to hear the shrieks of excitement from a group of young Beaver Scouts carried on the wind at Fleet Pond. The platform where they’re standing is just one of the ongoing improvements to this wonderful nature reserve, which visitors can now enjoy.

But the view hasn’t always looked so rosy. For decades, and more recently through the Clearwater Campaign, local volunteers from the Fleet Pond Society have been focusing attention on the suffocating levels of silt accumulating in the lake. Getting in mainly from its feeder streams, the Gelvert and the Brookly, the problem had become so serious that in places, the water was less than three foot deep. With aquatic plant and fish life struggling for survival, this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) risked losing its coveted conservation status.

For the past 60 years this special status has protected the rich flora and fauna beloved by wetland birds and migrating wildfowl from the urban development nibbling at Fleet Pond’s outer fringes. 
And, so varied are the natural habitats here that, in addition to 52 acres of open water, much of the remaining 89 acres of reedbed, marsh, heathland and woodland provide a sanctuary too for mammals, reptiles and insects.

“It’s a very special place to have so much wildlife, particularly in this part of the country, and people get a lot out of being here,” says Hart Council ranger, Rachel Jones. Based at the reserve since last spring, she’s seen the impact that dredging the areas worst affected by silt has made.

With funding secured for a major restoration programme, the work identified by the Council, Fleet Pond Society, Natural England, the Environment Agency and its engineering partners, is now well underway. And according to Rachel the rewards are beginning to flow.

“The water quality has certainly improved since the project began in 2012. It’s tested on a regular basis with samples taken from all around the lake. So far, we’ve been concentrating on what comes down the Gelvert from the Ministry of Defence land. It’s so sandy that as well dredging, we now have barriers in place to divert about a third of the silt into the woodland or marsh areas.

“And 26 islands and reedbed extensions have been created in the lake itself using the silt that’s been removed. These are already proving to be really good refuges for breeding birds, and for other wildlife, that perhaps wouldn’t have visited us before.”

Monitoring carried out by Hampshire Ornithology Society and the ringing of birds confirms that colonies of common tern and black-headed gull are currently thriving. In fact, Fleet Pond now has the largest number of both species found inland, anywhere in the county. And 2014 saw lapwing successfully breed for the first time too. It’s hoped that reeds transplanted with the help of students from the University of Southampton, and new habitats created around the islands’ perimeters, will attract many more reed warblers and other wading birds to visit this summer. And, perhaps even the bittern, one of the UK’s most threatened species, might be tempted to return to the site.

Fleet Pond now attracts birds coming in to roost - photo by Mark HodsonFleet Pond now attracts birds coming in to roost - photo by Mark Hodson

Meanwhile, as diggers continue to tackle the still serious issue of detritus and potential pollutants from the Fleet town area that clog the Brookly stream, a fish-free aquatic plant nursery has been created by the Fleet Pond Society at Chestnut Grove to secure the long-term health of the lake. As Rachel explains, trying to control invasive plants is an ongoing challenge, although around the water’s edge she does have a secret weapon.

“We have cattle that we borrow from Miller’s Ark, a rare breed charitable trust near Hook. These are lovely friendly animals and here they help us to manage our marshland in a more natural way.

“There’s always a lot happening at Fleet Pond and especially at the moment because although the bulk of the restoration project is done, there’s plenty of work to do all around it and we want to make the site more accessible to a wider variety of people.”

As well as birds, visitors are also flocking back to this once fashionable ‘playground’ for Victorian day-trippers. But whether providing improved facilities for anglers keen to hook themselves a perch, families and dog walkers out for a stroll, or fitness enthusiasts getting into shape, it’s a balancing act.

Sandy Bay has always been a popular part of the lake, and now there’s Lion’s View, where a new, wooden pier extends over the northern bank to provide a glorious vista over the watery expanse. Like the pond-dipping platform which was funded with the support of Fleet Townswomen’s Guild, it’s another example of how a local organisation has got behind the Clearwater Campaign. Named after the Lions Club, who raised £12,000 to get it off the ground, Fleet Pond Society volunteers built the viewing point in 2014. And providing added interest are photos supplied by local historian Percy Vickery. These tell the fascinating story of how the site, whilst then part of the Aldershot garrison, was used by Geoffrey de Havilland for testing his early 20th century float planes.

One of the Fleet Pond Society’s earliest contributions was to construct a circular walkway around the lake, and in 2015 the Council plans to develop additional paths suitable for pushchairs, bicycles and wheelchairs, using environmentally-friendly materials. In the coming months new directional signs, as well as carved notice boards with maps and wildlife information, will be installed; and with the volunteers having already added attractive wooden benches, the old metal picnic furniture is destined for the scrap heap.

“A particular goal of mine is to cater more for the residents at Hart District care homes,” says Rachel. “We want to make areas such as Lion’s View easier to get to. The new carved wooden picnic tables will also be wheelchair friendly.”

And whilst admitting that conservation work can be controversial, she’s confident they’re on the right track. “We’re trying to make everything look natural. At the end of the day, this is a nature reserve it’s not going to become a country park.”

A Heron takes flight over Fleet Pond - photo by Clearwater Photography UKA Heron takes flight over Fleet Pond - photo by Clearwater Photography UK

Undoubtedly challenges remain, yet you do get the sense that for Fleet Pond, its murky past is well and truly buried.

Did you know?

The Fleet Pond Restoration Project has been part-funded through the Environment Agency and Natural England Water Framework Directive. The restoration team, which also comprises Fleet Pond Society, Hart District Council, Johns Associates, Natural England and WM Longreach, won the Institution of Engineer’s Award for Sustainability and Environment in 2013.

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