The Springwatch man talks about black vultures, hatching moorhens and how canals helped bring his childhood interest in nature to life.
Interview: Roy Wilkinson
How important are canals for UK wildlife?
Canals form very important corridors for wildlife to move along, particularly through cities. The Grand Union Canal into London acts as an amazing thoroughfare for wildlife into the city. It’s not just the water itself, but also the banks of the canal and the surrounding landscape and fauna. They act as arteries along which wildlife flow in and out of our cities. They really help with biodiversity: birds, vegetation, insects, bats. Canals really are important for all kinds of British wildlife.
Have you spent any time travelling on a narrowboat?
I’ve spent a bit of time on the Kennet & Avon Canal, travelling and staying on a narrowboat. That was lovely. I saw kingfishers and a lot of other wildlife.
Were canals important in developing your interest in wildlife as a child?
One canal was very important. It wasn’t functional as a navigable waterway, but it fulfilled a very important function for me. I grew up in Southampton and the Itchen Navigation is close to where I lived. It gave me access to a freshwater environment. I used to walk the 13 or so miles to Winchester and get the train back home. I remember doing that walk with my first girlfriend.
What’s the most remarkable example of wildlife you’ve encountered on canals?
I saw my first ever otter on a canal on Christmas Day 1976. Otters were so rare, and to see them close to where I lived was amazing. There was this tremendous splashing on the canal, moorhens making a racket. Then I saw it – a pretty brief, but very rewarding view of a couple of otters. It was the best Christmas present I’d ever had and it took years for it to be surpassed.
And you were a fisherman yourself?
Yes, coarse fishing, mainly for dace, chub and rudd, trotting a float with maggots. That would have been between the ages of 12 and 16. After that a more scientific approach to studying wildlife took over. I caught my first grayling on a canal, beneath some locks. They liked the aerated water and the gravel bottom. It was tremendously exciting to catch that fish.
Has your wildlife work taken you to any interesting canals overseas?
I have been to canals in some quite exotic places, the Panama Canal for one. The richness of birdlife in Panama was amazing. I remember, on the Panama Canal, watching vast numbers of black vultures, which aren’t rare but there were such huge numbers – all flying to roost on an island. That was an unforgettable evening.
Would you say British canals have a particular mood? Are they meditative places?
I think canals do have a distinctive mood. They’re man-made of course – they’re somewhere man intersects with nature in a very interesting way. There’s a weave of human nostalgia that goes hand in hand with canals. With canals you find wildlife right by the towpath, right by the route where men and machinery ply their course. A canal was the first place I ever found young grass snakes. They’d hatched out one September and there they were, on the side of the footpath. I remember finding a moorhen nest and one of the eggs was hatching. I sat and watched it hatch which seemed miraculous. Canals take nature to us – and us to nature.
Chris Packham’s book Wild Side Of Town (New Holland Publishers) looks at wildlife in urban settings, including along canals.
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