Canal habitats

Our canals and rivers provide homes for all kinds of plants and wildlife. Whether it is the water or alongside it, nature thrives on the waterways.

Otter's head peeping above water Otter

Canal and river habitats are surprisingly diverse. Our waterway network and towpaths create valuable green corridors, bringing the heart of the countryside into towns and cities.

For many creatures that rely on both water and land, these wildlife corridors are a space like no other, offering 2,000 miles of connected habitat.

Keep scrolling to learn more about six different habitats found along our waterways.

Dormouse on plant Dormouse

Waterway banks

Waterway banks, where land and water meet, are particularly valuable for biodiversity. Often full of lush, diverse vegetation, they are ideal habitats for many species. Waterway banks also support an abundance of land and aquatic plants which serve as tempting meals for hungry creatures. 

Who might live here?

Flowering plants attract many insects, including dragonflies and bees who forage for nectar.

Waterway banks that are rich in greenery provide ideal nesting and feeding places for coots and moorhens, while the softer verges attract the endangered water vole.

Below water, rich banks appeal to a variety of invertebrates and fish, which in turn encourage the likes of kingfishers and herons to the area.

Hedgerows

Some of our oldest waterway habitats, hedgerows and trees are lifelines for many species as they provide food, shelter and breeding spaces.

Hedgerows and trees create a 'superhighway' for nature, joining up other habitats such as woodlands and grassland, allowing insects, birds and other creatures to move through the landscape freely.

The close proximity of hedgerows and trees to waterways adds to the value of these wildlife corridors, and helps attract an even wider range of species.

Who might live here?

Often seen before they're heard are the 30 bird species that use hedegerows and trees. The likes of blackbirds and robins will build nests, whilst dunnocks and whitethroats use taller shrubs as song-posts to announce their territories.

You may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the nocturnal dormouse in well-connected, larger hedgerows, or witness bats using them for foraging and commuter routes.

Frequent visitors to hedgerows and trees include butterflies, bees and a multitude of other insects.

Grassland

Grassland and towpath verges can extend many miles along our canals and rivers, and support a rich variety of flora and fauna. Even narrow verges can be important oases for wildlife in towns and cities.

Who might live here?

Flowery towpaths are important spaces for wildflowers to grow and thrive, which in turn attract a whole range of pollinators including bees, butterflies and dragonflies.

Amphibians will use taller vegetation for cover from predators, whilst ducks and geese are not an uncommon sight along areas of towpath in our towns and cities.

Scrubland

Scrubland is an area of land covered with low trees and bushes. It tends to be dominated by shrubbery and grasses, and is often rich in flowering plants.

Who might live here?

Scrub provides excellent shelter for small mammals including dormice and voles, and for amphibians such as frogs. Otters also favour dense waterside vegetation or wooded areas for resting and breeding.

It serves as a good nesting site for a variety of birds and provides plentiful habitat for bees, butterflies and other invertebrates.

Buildings, bridges, locks and walls

Many structures along our waterways are over 200 years old and play an important, but often overlooked, role in biodiversity.

Bridges, tunnels, locks, weirs, cottages, warehouses and offices all provide valuable habitat for wildlife. A wealth of life unfurls from the nooks and crannies, making the most of the damp conditions and shaded areas under bridges and in tunnels. 

Who might live here?

Bats are probably the most well-known animals that use our structures to rest and roost. They can sometimes be seen clustered in tunnel roofs or under aqueducts, but usually prefer to be hidden in crevices. Canal structures are particularly important for bats because of their waterside location, which provides a rich variety of insects on which they depend. 

Invertebrates that like dark and damp spaces will be drawn to these areas, as well as amphibians that rely on cool spots to bask and regulate their body temperatures on hot, sunny days.

Bird species to look out for are gray wagtails and nesting house martins.

Open water

With over 100 reservoirs and many other lakes and ponds, we have a significant ‘open water’ habitat. Like most of our canals and rivers, a lot of our reservoirs are now over 200 years old, and plants and animals moved in soon after they were built.

Who might live here?

Today many of our open water sites are protected areas because of their importance for water birds. You'll likely see coots and moorhens seeing solace at our reservoirs, as well as more unusual species including pochards, tufted ducks, great crested grebes and little grebes.

Former gravel pits, restored as lakes, can make perfect nesting sites for little ringed plovers.

Ponds offer refuges for rare and threatened plants, water beetles, and amphibians such as frogs and newts, which are more likely to be eaten by fish in our canals and rivers.

Last date edited: 12 April 2022