22 February 2019 by Phil Pickin
The Spring issue of Walk magazine revealed ten tempting towpath trails along Britain’s waterways. But how important are our waterways for wildlife? And what species can typically be spotted along the way at this time of year?
Water is a fundamental part of life and so it's no surprise that we are drawn to be beside the seaside or, for those of us not lucky enough to live near the sea, to our local rivers, canals and lakes. It's with this in mind that the Canals and Rivers Trust (CRT) began a campaign last year to raise awareness of the benefits of our local waterways.
The UK has an extensive network of canals and rivers and the CRT is responsible for more than 2,000 miles in England and Wales, working with volunteers and communities to transform canals and rivers into spaces where local people want to spend time. Connecting towns and cities throughout the UK, these waterways provide cover, food and fresh water to a diverse range of wildlife species and are even considered a linear national park. Canals are not just for abandoned shopping trolleys, although all too often this is what they are used for.
I've heard some walkers complain that waterways walks are ‘not their cup of tea’ and if you’re keen to challenge yourself physically then maybe a traipse along a towpath isn’t at the top of your walking wish list. But it's nice to experience different environments and for those who can't manage an undulating route the more level terrain of a towpath is ideal. So with the weather hopefully improving and more daylight hours, what should we look out for on a visit to our local canal? After all, mixing in some wildlife spotting with a walk could open up a whole new area of interest for you.
Spring is on the way and with it, new life is beginning to emerge. Birds will be pairing up and claiming territories within the trees and shrubs along the towpaths. Even the old buildings that make up the industrial heritage of the waterways can provide a home for birds, bats and insects. Locations such as locks can provide habitat for plants like whitlow grass which produces white flowers in the spring. Nature appears in the most unlikely places sometimes.
No matter what time of year you will often see grey herons standing motionless while fishing. And there are always mallards, coots and moorhens. But what you may also hear is the unmistakable call of the chiffchaff — no guessing as to how it got its name. This spring migrant will often be heard but not very often seen.
Birds and bees
The bushes and shrubs along the towpath provide excellent habitat for birds to nest and feed. At this time of year you can often spot catkins, coltsfoot and the unmistakable blackthorn with its white blossom on display. These spring blooms are not only pretty, but also attract insects and aid pollination. So look out for the first bees on warm days. They may be out making the most of this early opportunity to feed.
If you encounter any areas of still water. in adjacent ponds and pools perhaps - you might also find frogs and frog spawn. Like the insects, it only takes a few warm days to encourage these amphibians to emerge from hibernation.
The waterways do provide a hugely important and diverse habitat that not only supports a wide range of plants and animals but also provides them with a route along which they can move in relative safety. Along with our riverbanks, these areas make a significant contribution to the wellbeing of not just the wildlife but to all of us. And what's more, they are often a lot closer than you think.
Magazine of the Ramblers