National Mowing Trial 2021

This year the Trust will be conducting an exciting trial to see if we can successfully cut the grass on our towpaths differently.

Overgrown towpath

The purpose of the trial is to seek to balance the needs of boaters, towpath users, anglers and others accessing the waterways, whilst trying to bring the benefits to wildlife and biodiversity to the whole canal network, especially in urban areas. 

The Trust will be increasing habitat coverage across our canals by allowing grasses, plants and wildflowers to grow and flourish along the towpath, whilst still ensuring the safety of all our users by maintaining a walking pathway and ensuring key navigational sightlines are managed.    

The trial will cover c.600km of towpath across England and Wales and we are undertaking the trial now in anticipation for wider rollout in 2022. 

Our current mowing regimes do not reflect climatic conditions, soil nutrient profile or customer usage and the Trust wants to take this opportunity to unlock the potential which your canals and rivers can offer.

The mowing trial has been developed from speaking to the Navigational Advisory Group, guidance documents produced by the charity Plantlife, local knowledge regarding how we currently cut the grass and the different approaches local councils take when managing open spaces. 

The opportunity can then be taken to fine tune and adjust mowing regimes to suite the local canal characteristics. 

Reduction in soil fertility is also a key factor when promoting wildflower growth, over the next year the Trust will investigation the practicalities and potential for this at selection locations.

Over grown hedges along the towpath Himalayan Balsam along the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal

Key outputs

After discussions with internal & external stakeholders' key user requirements have been identified, which include:

  • Habitat improvement and biodiversity
  • A safe space which promotes wellbeing
  • A place to gain a sense of the outdoors
  • Clear sightlines when navigating, more in informal mooring locations
  • Ability for Trust engineers to inspect the towpath condition

Many of the main user requirements do overlap. Finding the balance between aspects which could cause conflict through applying the correct strategy and specification will result in all our users being engaged with what we are trying to achieve.

Benefits of the trial

  • 10% net increase (60km’s) of towpaths with fringe on the trial canals
  • Mowing a cumulative 1,814 km less grass
  • Which helps reduce the Trust’s carbon footprint
  • Improve customer experience
  • Improvement in how we cut the grass on canals which currently have a fringe
  • Helps encourage wildlife and biodiversity especially in urban areas
  • Gauge customer feedback and look to fine tune 2022 specifications
  • Gives 12 months to communicate fully to our customers

Current grass specifications

Across the network the Trust predominantly uses four mowing specifications which have not been revised since 2007.  

Two specifications are aimed at areas of high demand and do not incorporate a front fringe. The other two specifications do have a front fringe but are dependant on the towpath walking surface.

At present 57% of the network does not have a front habitat fringe and we will be focusing on where we can appropriately encourage and increase biodiversity.

Of the 43% of the network which does currently have a front fringe, we will be reviewing how we can improve the customer experience, especially for boaters, for example, by improving sightlines, approaches to locks and bridges, pinch points.

If customers do experience issues with the network, they can raise this at local forums or by contacting the Trust and supplying a location.

As with any trial or new method of working, we also require positive feedback from customers to help obtain a holistic view. 

picture of a lock and mowed grass

Trial mowing options

Option one

A single end of year edge to edge full width cut removing saplings and woody vegetation. This regime will be applied on canals with very low soil fertility, of high elevation or redundant canals where towpath use is low.

Option two

A single end of year full width cut with two added navigational cuts which ensures that grass growth along the footpath and at key points, such as sightlines and approaches to bridges are maintained. This regime is ideal for canals which have limited use or are disused.

Option three

A single end of year full width cut with four navigational cuts. This system is similar to the current mowing regime and is expected to be the most used.

Option four

A full width cut at the start and end of the growing season plus three navigational cuts, this regime would be best implemented in southern regions who experience longer growing seasons, more favourable climatic conditions or sites with high soil fertility. This regime also helps early flowering plants.

Be local

We need to take into account local factors, by changing how we cut the grass nationally. We still need everyone's feedback in how to make the network better for everyone. 

If you have any feedback please raise this at your local forum or by contacting the Trust and supplying a location, suggestions of improvements which could be made include.

  • Local mooring points
  • Local places of interest
  • Navigational sightlines
  • Specific SSSI requirements
  • Areas requiring additional management for asset inspections
  • One-off cuts for events or festivals

We also need people to give us positive feedback on what is going well, so that we can have a balanced viewpoint.

But we can only get this right if people speak up.

Please read our frequently asked questions which can be found here.

Last date edited: 12 August 2021