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Small is beautiful: the overlooked importance of small freshwaters

November 4, 2014
A pond in Hampshire, Southern England.  Image Anguskirk, Flickr

A pond in Hampshire, Southern England. Image Anguskirk, Flickr

Small bodies of water such as ponds, ditches, springs, flushes and headwater streams pockmark many landscapes across Europe.  Whilst they might often be overlooked (stepped over, sometimes), there is increasing consensus that these small freshwaters are extremely important to the ecological health of the landscape.

European ponds, for example, support a larger proportion of freshwater biodiversity than lakes or rivers, and help ‘connect’ a landscape for species such as frogs and dragonflies by providing a series of ‘stepping stone’ habitats across the wider landscape.  In this way, small water bodies are important as part of what ecologists term the ‘landscape matrix’, providing patches of diverse habitat (often in urban and non-protected areas) which interconnect with other ecological processes across the whole landscape to shape its overall health and diversity.  Headwater streams (those right at the top of the river’s course) can provide spawning grounds for fish like the Atlantic salmon, and then sheltered ‘nursery’ habitats for their offspring.

However, small water bodies have been largely ignored by freshwater scientists, conservationists and policy makers, meaning there are gaps both in our knowledge of their ecological forms and functions, and in their protection through policies like the Water Framework Directive.  There is growing awareness of the significance of small water bodies, shown by their inclusion in the European Environment Agency’s European waters – assessment of status and pressures and the European Commission’s Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources, both published in 2012.

As part of this increasing focus on small water bodies, The European Environmental Bureau and the Freshwater Habitats Trust recently released a report on a workshop which took place in November 2013 to discuss how small water bodies might be better managed and protected in Europe.

A key issue discussed at the meeting was how existing European legislation – particularly the Water Framework Directive, Birds and Habitat Directive and the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy – could incorporate small water bodies.  Another was the need for effective co-operation between different environmental managers across the wider landscape to better understand, monitor and manage the role of small water bodies in supporting biodiversity on a landscape scale.  Finally, small water bodies were seen as ideal habitats for engaging the public with conservation issues, given that ponds and streams are present in most landscapes, even those that are predominantly urban.

You can read the workshop report on the Freshwater Habitats Trust website, and find out more on the European Environmental Bureau website.

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