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The charity making life better by water

Laying foundations for nature’s future

Thanks to your support, we’re teaming up with Chester Zoo and a host of other local partners to boost biodiversity along the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire. With the support of local community groups and volunteers, the initiative is set to transform wildlife habitats along an eight-mile stretch of the canal between Chester and Ellesmere Port.

We caught up with some of the people involved to find out a little more about this ambitious project and discover how the ancient country craft of hedgelaying is helping us protect wildlife and inspire volunteers on the canalside.

Boats on the canal

The 16-month project, backed by the government's Green Recovery Challenge Fund, will remove harmful floating pennywort weed from the canal, regenerate hedgerows along the bank and develop new community gardens.

As Canal & River Trust ecologist, Tom King, explains: “The project will help to make the canal greener, cleaner and more biodiverse, which will benefit waterway users and create a green-blue corridor from Chester Zoo to south Chester. The canal will be better for wildlife and will allow animals and plants to move between key nature sites.”

Volunteers will also plant pockets of wildflower meadows, fruit trees and edible plants to encourage biodiversity and create better habitats for pollinators.

The initiative ties in perfectly with Chester Zoo's long-term vision to preserve our native species. As zoo ecologist, Jo Doolin tells us: “Part of our core conservation plan is preventing extinction, and that should start at home. There are many species in the UK that are under threat, so for us, it's not just about helping animals overseas, it's about doing important conservation work here as well.”

People laying hedges by the canal

A big part of the project is geared towards renewing hedgerows along the route. As well as forming a natural barrier for farms, roads and housing, hedgerows provide vital habitat for an array of species. They serve as nesting sites for birds, offer food and shelter for insects and small mammals, and provide natural corridors for wildlife to move through the landscape.

Preserving these natural havens and highways is a delicate balancing act, and each year, we trim around 1,200 miles of hedgerow along our towpaths. Yet, even with the proper care and management, every hedge eventually needs to be rejuvenated. Traditionally, this was done by hedgelaying, an ancient country craft that involves cutting and bending the stems at the base of a hedge to trigger a new life cycle.

Hedgelaying expert, Dave Padley, has been instructing our volunteers in the timeless art. “The principle is to cut each individual stem or pleacher at ground level,” he says, “leaving just a very thin point of attachment; the new growth we're looking to encourage will occur just below the cut, very close to the floor. We're regenerating the hedge from the base, taking the old material and rejuvenating it.”

Hedges after being laid by the canal

Unfortunately, in the last century, hedgelaying has become something of a vanishing art. In the past, farmers and canal workers were responsible for laying and managing the hedgerows along our canals, but post-war, with widespread canal closures and changes in agriculture, the skill was largely lost. Thankfully, initiatives like this one in Cheshire are bringing it back to the fore, teaching a new generation the traditional skills and ecological benefits of hedgelaying.

For one of our young volunteers, Tim Ashcroft, it's been a particularly rewarding experience: “I've learnt how to maintain the hedges properly, tidying them up and cutting them back so they're all nice and neat. You get to meet all sorts of people volunteering, and they're a great bunch, so it's been a really good opportunity. It's been great to learn about the history side of it all as well; it's amazing to think that some of these hedges could be hundreds of years old.”

Tim is just one of dozens of young volunteers from nearby schools, scout troops and the university, that are pitching in, learning new skills and gaining valuable hands-on experience. Long term, we plan to pass on this vital knowledge to our wider pool of local volunteers, keeping the art of hedgelaying alive and preserving vital hedgerows habitats for generations to come.

We have thousands of miles of hedgerow running alongside our waterways, and it all has to be carefully managed and maintained. So, if you or someone you know would like to get involved and help us lay new hedges in Cheshire or beyond, check out our volunteer page.

Last Edited: 16 December 2022

photo of a location on the canals
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