Mowing less, growing more

A big part of maintaining more than 2,000 miles of towpaths across our network is cutting the grass along the banks of our canals and rivers. However, we’re now starting to mow less as we try to help nature bloom and improve the biodiversity of wildlife found by our canals. It’s a delicate balance, as on the one hand, we want to improve and revive valuable natural habitats; but on the other, we still need to keep towpaths safe and accessible to everyone.

People crossing a bridge over the canal with wildflowers and greenery in the foreground Towpaths such as this one on the outskirts of Wigan, should bloom into life this summer

Until very recently, we mowed an astonishing 24 million square metres of grass on our network every single year. That’s an area the size of Worcester. Of course, in many places this was vital. Locks and mooring posts need to be kept clear of foliage, sightlines near narrow bridges and curving canal bends need to be properly managed, and boaters, anglers, walkers and cyclists need easy access to the canal.

The area around lock gates on a canal Around locks and bridges, we need to keep grass short, to keep boaters and walkers safe.

However, cutting grass on such a large scale can limit the potential for nature to thrive along the towpath. It is by far our most expensive vegetation management activity and costs the Trust in the region of £2 million a year.

Something needed to change. A few years ago we began to rethink our mowing regime. Key to this process was operational projects and standards manager, Peter Rodriguez. He picks up the story: “I concluded that we could do something better, that we could trial something and really have a positive impact on the environment, particularly in our towns and cities where we had a chance to create green spaces and drive biodiversity into the heart of urban areas. It’s about changing our whole philosophy to work with, not against, nature where we can.”

Thanks to enthusiastic advocates like Peter, in 2021, we set up a national mowing trial to see if there was a better, more environmentally friendly way to cut the grass along our canals and rivers. We have always left cuttings on the towpath so they feed and reseed other plants by the canal. But the trial also experimented with:

  • Reducing the number of cuts during the growing season between spring and autumn to allow grasses, plants and wildflowers to flourish
  • Changing when we cut, to help, rather than hinder wildlife
  • Widening the area of towpath we cut to give walkers and cyclists easy access
  • Cutting bank edges in appropriate places so that boaters can still moor up and anglers can still set their lines
A canal scene showing towpath with verdant verges

To make sure it was a fair trial, we incorporated more than 370 miles of towpath from up and down the country. As Peter explains: “We made sure that we included a mix of urban and rural areas from across the entire network, from London and the South East, up into the West Midlands, Wales and the South West. We included both broad and narrow types of canals too, to really try and stress test the mowing strategies.”

The trial was a big success. Towpaths and riverbanks have been revitalised throughout the country, increasing biodiversity, creating more green spaces and safeguarding vital wildlife habitats. This is particularly true in urban areas, as Peter predicted.

People walking along canal towpath with verdant verges

Take West Drayton on the Grand Union Canal, for example. Traditionally, the foliage on this section of the network was stripped back to the water’s edge. Now, plants, grasses and wildflowers have been allowed to grow, creating a beautiful natural environment in the heart of London.

Aside from the ecological benefits, the new strategy looks set to save vital funds that can now be diverted to other important projects.

The trial also gave us an important opportunity to listen to feedback from all canal users, and going forward, our mowing specifications will continue to reflect the needs of everyone.

This year, although we need to make a small number of exceptions where we need to mow to ensure customer safety and protect key assets like locks, landings, moorings and inspection pathways, the new mowing regime will be rolled out across the network.

Whilst keeping them properly maintained, canals across the country will be helping to boost our biodiversity.

It’s a win-win situation. This summer you can go out and enjoy the same easy access to our canals and rivers, but thanks to the new mowing regime, they should be more verdant and beautiful than ever.

There are all sorts of ways you can play your part in helping nature this Spring. From taking part in our ‘Spot that Habitat’ surveys on our greener towpaths, to taking part in 'No Mow May’ this month by mowing a little less in your garden to help wildlife.

Last date edited: 22 April 2022

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