Our canals and rivers provide homes for all kinds of plants and wildlife. Whether it is the water or alongside it, nature thrives on the waterways.
Canal and river habitats are surprisingly diverse. Our waterway network and towpaths create valuable green corridors, bringing the heart of the countryside into towns and cities.
For many creatures that rely on both water and land, these wildlife corridors are a space like no other, offering 2,000 miles of connected habitat.
Keep scrolling to learn more about six different habitats found along our waterways.
Waterway banks, where land and water meet, are particularly valuable for biodiversity. Often full of lush, diverse vegetation, they are ideal habitats for many species. Waterway banks also support an abundance of land and aquatic plants which serve as tempting meals for hungry creatures.
Who might live here?
Flowering plants attract many insects, including dragonflies and bees who forage for nectar.
Waterway banks that are rich in greenery provide ideal nesting and feeding places for coots and moorhens, while the softer verges attract the endangered water vole.
Below water, rich banks appeal to a variety of invertebrates and fish, which in turn encourage the likes of kingfishers and herons to the area.
Laura, I’d have to say habitats like this are really special for me. There’s something that really connects you to them and gets you excited because it’s home to so many different types of species.
Absolutely. I mean, being beside the water is just so calming anyway. And then, when you have a day like today when the sun’s out, the birds are singing, it’s just such a beautiful place to be. And where we are here, we’ve got these softer bank habitats, which are fantastic for species that are in decline, like the water vole, who use their front teeth a bit like a JCB to dig out the burrows, which I just think is so cool that they’re just there with their little teeth digging away. And then we’ve got these fantastic reed beds as well which are really great in the middle of the summer when the reed and sedge warblers come. They’ll build their basket-y nests in there. And so you can walk along the towpath and see these water voles and the birds. It’s just such a beautiful place to be.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Because I can walk along reed beds and things, and you don’t necessarily see the animals. But that’s not always the most important thing because if you could hear them or some sort of evidence that they’re there, that’s really exciting because it’s the mystery of what’s going on in those reed beds. It’s like a drama for wildlife that you’re only getting a short glimpse of. And it’s so important to protect habitats like that.
Absolutely, and it’s really important that we try and bring these softer bank habitats into the cities where you’ve often got sort of steel-piled sides to the canals, or it might even be concrete. But we’ve got these floating reed systems that we’re going to be bringing some more in, and that will allow the plants to grow, and then the insects will come in and forage on the plants. And then, hopefully, we can bring more and more wildlife into the city so that people can connect with it.
Absolutely, because the wildlife is out there; it’s just getting it into the hearts of the cities and hearts of people’s minds as well.
Some of our oldest waterway habitats, hedgerows and trees are lifelines for many species as they provide food, shelter and breeding spaces.
Hedgerows and trees create a 'superhighway' for nature, joining up other habitats such as woodlands and grassland, allowing insects, birds and other creatures to move through the landscape freely.
The close proximity of hedgerows and trees to waterways adds to the value of these wildlife corridors, and helps attract an even wider range of species.
Who might live here?
Often seen before they're heard are the 30 bird species that use hedegerows and trees. The likes of blackbirds and robins will build nests, whilst dunnocks and whitethroats use taller shrubs as song-posts to announce their territories.
You may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the nocturnal dormouse in well-connected, larger hedgerows, or witness bats using them for foraging and commuter routes.
Frequent visitors to hedgerows and trees include butterflies, bees and a multitude of other insects.
Seeing people make the most of a beautiful sunny day like today is just brilliant. We’ve had cyclists, people with buggies, walkers, all sorts of people coming down to the canals.
Yeah, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Because obviously, wildlife uses them as highways, but it’s not just the kind of water that’s important for that. You’ve got things like these hedgerows and tree lines, as well, which provide these corridors.
Yeah, the hedgerows are just such a fantastic feature for bringing nature into the city centre and connecting up habitats as well which have been so succumbed to habitat fragmentation. And then as we have these really lovely hedgerows bringing the wildlife into the cities and connecting them back up to the further afield habitats. It’s just a really great feature.
Yeah, definitely. Because, you know, wildlife needs shelter, it needs security when it’s moving around. And those hedgerows are invaluable in providing that. And the things like hedgehog obviously named ‘hedge’ for a reason. And all the kind of the rodents and everything else that lives amongst the dense hedgerow.
We need our volunteers to help us to create and improve these habitats. And it’s also fantastic for their own mental health and wellbeing to know that they can come to us and do something like some hedge laying and really make a difference to biodiversity.
Grassland and towpath verges can extend many miles along our canals and rivers, and support a rich variety of flora and fauna. Even narrow verges can be important oases for wildlife in towns and cities.
Who might live here?
Flowery towpaths are important spaces for wildflowers to grow and thrive, which in turn attract a whole range of pollinators including bees, butterflies and dragonflies.
Amphibians will use taller vegetation for cover from predators, whilst ducks and geese are not an uncommon sight along areas of towpath in our towns and cities.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? You can be in the heart of any city and you can find absolute gems. I mean I’m not sure everyone will call this a gem, but I get very excited by it.
It’s brilliant, isn’t it? If it weren’t for this really modern bridge being here to protect this otter spraint, the droppings the otters have left behind, we wouldn’t know that they were coming this far into the city centre at all.
Yeah, I mean otters are secretive mammals anyway. You know, they’re hard to see in the heart of the countryside, let alone in a city where they are going to be probably a little bit more timid. But it’s evidence like this that allows us to get better ideas of their populations. And, you know, it proves how important these waterways are. I mean we’ve got the swans, and the Canada geese and the mallards behind, but to have an otter, it blows my mind. It’s incredibly exciting.
We’ve got some little fish bones here and some little fish scales. And if you’re feeling brave, you can get a stick and have a little bit of a poke, and it smells beautiful to me.
Yeah, I really love that smell. I’m sorry, whenever I come across otter spraint, I’m going to sniff it.
I mean, I always sniff it as well because I think when you come across any animal excrement or whatever, you have to give it a sniff. You’re not a naturalist if you don’t sniff a lot of poo.
Have to say, one of my favourite things is spring – and there are many things that I get really excited about when it comes back around again – is that kind of arrival of the wildflowers back as they come out and just kind of explode like fireworks. And they’re really exciting to see, and they really do liven up our cities as well, I think.
We’ve been a little bit early for it today. Spring hasn’t quite spring just yet.
We’re getting there.
We’re nearly there, we’re nearly there. The sun’s been out today. But we have seen some lesser celandine. That beautiful yellow colour that’s one of the earliest species to emerge. So important for pollinators. And at the Canal & River Trust, we do try and allow some of our grasses to grow a little bit longer to allow those flowers to bloom and provide that incredibly important food source for the pollinators, which obviously then, in turn, are a brilliant food source for the birds and for the bats. And all of those species coming into the cities along with our canals, it’s just a really important habitat.
And it looks beautiful at the same time. So there’s really not a downside just to letting the grass grow a little bit wilder, as you say, and letting those gorgeous flowers, you know, the oxeye daisy and then the poppies, it’s stunning, you know, just giving it chance to breathe and do its job. And you know, pollinators need all the help they can get.
Yeah, definitely. Along the canals, some of the sorts of species that we get are things like yellow flag iris and purple loosestrife and meadowsweet, which are just such beautiful colours, and they’re absolutely buzzing with life in the early spring. Not quite today, but soon enough those flowers are going to be ready for the insects to come along and buzz along, making sure that all of the flowers are pollinated and providing that food source for birds and bats, as well, of course.
Yeah, I’d be more inclined to come if there are wildflowers all over the place, which there are. It makes, you know, these environments that much more attractive when we let that happen.
I think so, I think so, too.
Scrubland is an area of land covered with low trees and bushes. It tends to be dominated by shrubbery and grasses, and is often rich in flowering plants.
Who might live here?
Scrub provides excellent shelter for small mammals including dormice and voles, and for amphibians such as frogs. Otters also favour dense waterside vegetation or wooded areas for resting and breeding.
It serves as a good nesting site for a variety of birds and provides plentiful habitat for bees, butterflies and other invertebrates.
So, walking along, you’ve got gorgeous canal on this side, and on the opposite side, something which people could walk past and think, “Oh, it looks a bit messy.” And I’d always argue the messier, the better. Because this is scrubland, is so great and it’s so biodiverse, and we need a bit of mess sometimes in our gardens and things, don’t we?
Yeah, scrubland is a habitat that people often don’t really think of as a habitat because it’s just sort of an untidy area where we’ve let nature do its own thing. After the storms, some branches have come down so we’ve left them there. And then the wood decay beetles will come in, start foraging on them, lay their eggs in there, which will then feed on the dead decaying wood, which is then also absorbed and broken down by fungi, which are just incredible.
Yeah, I feel like in this country, you know, and elsewhere, I mean, we are just obsessed with having manicured lawns, neat and tidy everything. You know, but actually just letting an area grow wild has such catastrophic impact for biodiversity. It makes the world of difference; it gives something a home. So, you know, a place that might seem messy for us actually is critically important when it comes to climate as well.
Absolutely, and those dense brambles that will provide blackberries in the autumn for us and for the birds, but through the summer, it’s going to be one of the first things that’s going to be suitable for birds to get into and build their nests and feel protected from predators. So, we don’t want to chop all of the bramble down. It’s really important to, in appropriate places, let it do its own thing.
Yeah, we’ve got over 100 species of bramble in the UK.
Have we? 100? That’s awesome.
That’s pretty cool. I think it’s 108, but I’d have to check that statistic, but how good? And I love bramble picking, you know, going out and picking blackberries and stuff. You know, it doesn’t get much better than that. And you know, for us and for everything else, it’s just, you know, hands off for a time being.
And it’s brilliant.
The other species that’s really important in scrubland, and we’ve got some here, is ivy. It’s one of the first things to provide pollen and nectar for insects in the spring. One of the last things in the autumn. And also, it’s got a lovely dense structure for birds to build their nests in and be hidden away from predators. So, we should leave ivy standing rather than tidying it away.
I think there’s something we can all take away from that, you know, whether that’s in our gardens or communities or just going out and about in the countryside and seeing areas that look a bit messy but appreciating it for the biodiverse, rich habitat that it is.
Buildings, bridges, locks and walls
Many structures along our waterways are over 200 years old and play an important, but often overlooked, role in biodiversity.
Bridges, tunnels, locks, weirs, cottages, warehouses and offices all provide valuable habitat for wildlife. A wealth of life unfurls from the nooks and crannies, making the most of the damp conditions and shaded areas under bridges and in tunnels.
Who might live here?
Bats are probably the most well-known animals that use our structures to rest and roost. They can sometimes be seen clustered in tunnel roofs or under aqueducts, but usually prefer to be hidden in crevices. Canal structures are particularly important for bats because of their waterside location, which provides a rich variety of insects on which they depend.
Invertebrates that like dark and damp spaces will be drawn to these areas, as well as amphibians that rely on cool spots to bask and regulate their body temperatures on hot, sunny days.
Bird species to look out for are gray wagtails and nesting house martins.
Now, thinking of canals and bridges and things. I mean, a lot of this infrastructure was put in during the Industrial Revolution and everything like that, carrying really important goods and stuff into the hearts of cities. But actually, you know now, it’s been taken over by wildlife, and it’s amazing to see what moves in when you give it the chance to.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean these canals, some of them are 200 years old, even more in some cases. And these structures, like this really old bridge behind us, have been here for hundreds of years, giving wildlife plenty of time to make their own home out of that structure. Something like this bridge, you could have bats roosting up in the gaps, cracks, and crevices. You could have birds nesting in some of the holes. Sometimes, reptiles and amphibians might come out and bask in the grass that’s growing over the top of the bridge; just a fantastic habitat.
It’s just so important isn’t it? Something that could be deemed as kind of a man-made structure. Something that, you know, we’re the only species that gets any use out of it. But when you look in the details, you look in those cracks, and you see a bat, you know, hibernating or in torpor in there towards the end of the spring season, or you see those invertebrates, you realise just how important those structures can be if we give wildlife the chance to move back in.
Absolutely, yeah, I think that’s right. And it’s those structures that animals can then make a home of, even in the really urban city centres. We’ve got some pillboxes along some of our canals that we’ve prevented people from being able to get into because, sadly, they were just using them like giant litter bins. But we’ve created habitat inside them for bats to come and move in. And so that will hopefully give the bats a really safe and secure, temperature stable place that they can move into, right in the heart of our city centres.
I love that, and I love bats as well. I love to see, you know, more bats around the city centre. I mean, I live in central Southampton, and I don’t get to see many, other than when I go to the outskirts in the New Forest and such. And it’s such a shame, and we’ve just got to learn to be more tolerant and share our space with the wildlife.
Absolutely, I mean, the canals are a fantastic super highway for bats. There’s everything they need. They’ve got shelter from the trees and the hedgerows on either side. They’ve got ample food, foraging over the water surface. And then those waterways come right into the city centres. But they also, in the opposite direction, can go quite into really rural areas where there are woodlands and places that bats are going to be roosting. It’s just a great super highway.
With over 100 reservoirs and many other lakes and ponds, we have a significant ‘open water' habitat. Like most of our canals and rivers, a lot of our reservoirs are now over 200 years old, and plants and animals moved in soon after they were built.
Who might live here?
Today many of our open water sites are protected areas because of their importance for water birds. You'll likely see coots and moorhens seeing solace at our reservoirs, as well as more unusual species including pochards, tufted ducks, great crested grebes and little grebes.
Former gravel pits, restored as lakes, can make perfect nesting sites for little ringed plovers.
Ponds offer refuges for rare and threatened plants, water beetles, and amphibians such as frogs and newts, which are more likely to be eaten by fish in our canals and rivers.
I suppose one thing that’s really important in cities with a lot of water in it, like this one, is the water quality because that’s causing so many issues isn’t it?
Yeah, that’s right. There’s often surface water runoff will go into the canals – both in the cities from the traffic and in more rural areas from the surrounding farmland. And that can cause an over-enrichment which can then cause algal blooms which is then bad news for the animals that live in the water because they can find that the oxygen drops right out. But having the open water in the cities is just so great for people to be able to connect to that. And the sound of the water running over the weird – I love that sound of moving water. It’s just so good for your mental wellbeing.
It is. I guess it just connects people as well. Because, you know, if we are aware of what’s going on in our waterways in our open water, like this, then we’re going to be more empowered to act to do something to protect it as well because it’s right on our doorstep. It is. I mean, this waterway is just on so many people’s doorsteps. They literally just come out of their front door, and a couple of minutes walk and they’re on the canal next to the water. Seeing all of the animals who will call this home, all of the different ducks and the birds in the trees. It’s just a fantastic habitat.
Yeah, exactly. And all different levels, from aquatic plants to birds, it’s just excellent isn’t it?