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The charity making life better by water

Helping nature thrive

Our canal network spans England and Wales, bringing nature and wildlife into our towns and cities.

A water vole sits on a branch in the canal holding food in its paws

Despite being man-made, our canals home to herons, dragonflies, water voles and bats – to name just some of the species that have adopted our waterways as their own.

Canals play a crucial role in providing much-needed habitat for threatened wildlife at a time when biodiversity in the UK is in crisis. But canal habitats wouldn’t exist without our intervention. They need constant care to keep them flowing, full of water, clean and wild. Whether we’re creating new habitats, protecting wildlife during canal repairs, or managing water quality issues, our environmental knowhow is central to everything we do.

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Planting new orchards, moving fish to safety, spotting seals – it's all part of the job for our expert environment team. We’re incredibly proud of the important natural corridors canals provide for wildlife, and we’ll work tirelessly to make sure they stay special
Eoin Harris, head of environment & climate action

What’s the challenge?

With more boats on our waters and more people using our towpaths than ever before, fragile canal ecosystems are feeling the extra strain - with littering, fly-tipping, the introduction of invasive species, the effects of climate change and pollution all adding additional pressures. Each year, an estimated 14 million pieces of plastic rubbish end up in and around our canals and rivers, with around 500,000 pieces flowing out to sea. 

We also only own 4% of the land next to our waterways. This means they could be affected by the development activity of others if we didn't influence decisions to deliver sustainable, considered development.

The role we play

We maintain and restore our network with the future in mind. Canals need to stand up to extreme weather events and provide crucial habitat that may otherwise disappear. Our teams of ecologists, hydrologists, planners, environment and heritage experts ensure any work or development is done sensitively, balancing the needs of wildlife with the working nature of the network.

And we have a responsibility to reduce our own carbon footprint with sustainable practices at the heart of everything we do.

Creating and managing habitats for wildlife

Once a route for industry, today our canal network is the blueprint for a 2000-mile green corridor connecting parks, woodland and countryside with water. It includes:

  • 68 Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • 3,000 County Wildlife Sites
  • Around 700 miles of canal granted Green Flag status
  • Incredible wildlife like otters, kingfishers, dragonflies and water voles.

To help keep canal habitats special:

  • We install fish passes, ensuring migrating eels, salmon and many other species can navigate their way past obstacles to their breeding grounds
  • We plant trees and care for 250-year-old, biodiversity-rich hedgerows along our towpaths, connecting habitat around the country
  • We replace hard edges with soft banks and add floating reedbeds, giving plants, insects, water voles and young fish more of the habitat they need to thrive.

Tackling invasive species

Non-native invasive species are considered the second greatest threat to native wildlife. They cost the UK economy up to £1.7 billion a year. And they’re a particular problem for our waterways.

By reducing water quality and competing with native wildlife for habitat, they can have a huge impact on our canals and rivers. Every year we spend around £700,000 treating, removing and preventing the spread of invasive weeds. 

Protecting water quality

Clean water is vital for healthy canal and rivers. Keeping our waterways free of harmful pollutants that could threaten fish, insects, aquatic plants and other vulnerable wildlife is an important part of our work.

Industrial spillages, boat fuel spills, sewage and agricultural run-off can end up in the water. We respond to more than 500 reports of pollution incidents every year. We work with local businesses and people to highlight what they discharge into our waterway and the negative effect this can have on our canals. And we work in partnership to prevent or reduce pollution with regulators, water companies, fishing clubs and landowners.

Influencing planning and development

The planning system plays a vital role in protecting waterways from inappropriate development and enhancing the country’s network of canals, rivers and docks. Our team of professional planners advise decision-makers and comment on planning proposals with biodiversity, heritage, sustainability and local communities in mind.

Minimizing our own carbon footprint

We’re committed to reducing our energy use, using greener forms of travel, purchasing our products from sustainable sources and reducing the waste we send to landfill.

Why it matters

The biodiversity crisis has seen the UK become one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. Right now, 41% of the UK’s wildlife species are in decline. Nature is being pushed into smaller, more isolated pockets of habitat that are disconnected from one another.

Our canals and rivers are the UK’s longest unbroken network of waterway habitat, home to protected and much-loved wildlife right on our doorsteps. They also play an important part in our collective response to a changing climate. They absorb carbon dioxide, cool our towns and cities by up to 1.6°C, and help mitigate the impact of flooding. They also offer a low-carbon transport option for many and can even provide renewable energy in the form of hydropower.

Kingfisher in flight with small fish in its beak

Support our work

We need your support to keep canals and rivers alive. Donate today to make a difference

Explore more

Learn more about some of our key environmental projects

Last Edited: 01 March 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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