CANALS and rivers span the length and breadth of Britain. Canals are a relic of the industrial revolution, built by squads of men armed with nothing more than shovels, picks and wheelbarrows. They are a testament to both the vision and the physical tenacity of those generations that went before us.
The use of canals for industrial purposes has largely disappeared and there was a time when they lay idle and neglected as nothing more than a reminder of the past. In the last few decades, though, they have become increasingly popular as a recreation resource: holidaying on narrow boats, fishing, canoeing, and running and cycling along the towpaths.
Canals and rivers also act as fantastic wildlife reservoirs. Naturally the water itself provides an ideal habitat for aquatic or semi-aquatic species, but the banks, towpaths and surrounding hedges, bushes and grasslands are also the perfect environment for a vast array of terrestrial species of fauna and flora.
In order to monitor this wildlife and to increase public awareness, British Waterways each year organises a wildlife survey that runs from April to October. Members of the public are asked to report any wildlife sightings on inland waterways and the results are collated and published in November.
This year there were more than 42,500 sightings recorded, compared to a little over 3,000 in the 2008 survey. Which says a huge amount about the increasing popularity of, and interest in, British wildlife and must in no small part be a result of the ever popular Springwatch and Autumnwatch programmes on the BBC.
There can be no doubt that the water quality of most of our canals and rivers has increased markedly in recent years. Good quality, unpolluted water is a much better habitat for wildlife and the amazing recovery of the otter population throughout the UK owes much to this.
Sadly, one of the mammals that has suffered most from past loss of habitat and water pollution is the water vole, with numbers down by an estimated 90% UK wide. Possible good news is that the 2009 survey records twice as many water vole sightings as in 2008. Whilst this may reflect a genuine increase in water vole numbers it may simply be a result of the increase in the number of people reporting. Water voles were most frequently seen on the Kennet and Avon Canal and on the waterways of the East Midlands.
In total over 300 “animal” species were spotted by the public. This includes 127 different species of birds ranging from the common such as mallard, Canada goose and swan; to the more unusual like kingfishers and little owls. There were also 27 species of butterfly seen, along with reptiles and amphibians such as grass snakes, frogs and toads.
Not only do waterways provide habitat in their own right, they also act as essential corridors linking together populations of animals and habitats that would otherwise become isolated and possibly unsustainable.
This applies to towns as much as to the countryside and it is interesting to note that 50% of the UK’s human population is reckoned to live within five miles of a freely accessible canal or river.
Which goes to show that for many of us, there are places worth exploring right on our doorstep if only we make the time and effort to find out. British Waterways will be launching its 2010 Wildlife Survey next spring and if you would like to get involved you can have a look at the website, www.waterscape.com.
2010 also happens to be the UN International Year of Biodiversity. The aims of a designation such as this are to increase our understanding of the importance of biodiversity and to halt the current rapid loss of biodiversity – currently estimated to be progressing at up to 100 times the natural rate of extinction.
There will be more on the International Year of Biodiversity in next month’s column.