Caravan Club Mag - Jan 07


On the WATERFRONT

DAVID CHAPMAN SWAPS HIS MOTOR CARAVAN FOR A NARROWBOAT AS HE GOES IN SEARCH OF CANAL WILDLIFE

My dedication to researching this feature resulted in me booking a narrow boat holiday for a week last March on the Llangollen Canal. I chose this canal because of its wild credentials - it travels through some impressive scenery and is conveniently close the Club's Lady Margaret Park Site.

I used to look upon March as the beginning of spring, but after six inches of snow in Llangollen I now know better. The snow immediately drove home to me one big advantage a narrow boat has over a motor - canals don't need to be gritted! Life on a narrow boat really does slow you down (to a maximum of 4 miles per hour to be precise), and this can be beneficial for your blood pressure as well as your chances of getting close to wildlife.

Canal boats give their inhabitants a whole new take on wildlife - watching, affording literally eye-to-eye contact with ducks, swans and many other animals; wildlife seems not to fear the approach of a narrow boat. In a sense there are two types of natural history that can be seen from a canal - wildlife which is there only because the canal is and the visitors that simply dip in, metaphorically speaking, to make occasional use of it.

Looking first at the wild life which specialised in canal-living, we find some very pleasant surprises. The most common birds include such familiar species as mallard, mute swan, coot, moorhen and grey heron. Slightly more mouth watering is the prospect of seeing the colourful kingfisher, which is surprisingly numerous along some stretches of canal; one such place, is the Grand Western Canal in Devon.

A joy of watching wildlife is when something unexpected occurs; for me the most exciting bird spotted during my trop was the goosander.

Other types of wildlife are well represented. Amphibians benefit from the slow moving water of the canal; dragonflies are numerous in summer; grass snakes are surprisingly good swimmers and often live in the damp meadows which so frequently border our canals. But the piece de resistance has to be the water vole. These little creatures have suffered a serious decline in recent years and it might not be overstating the case to suggest that canals are saving them from extinction in Britain.

Flowers that flourish on the damp edges of a can and wet meadows include bulrushes, cuckoo flower {April /May} marsh marigolds {March/June}, meadowsweet {July/August5} water mint {August/September} and ragged robin {June/July}.

As well as providing a home for some species canals provide a welcome resource to enrich and diversify the habitats through which they travel. Often bordered by wildlife supporting hedgerows and strips of rough grassland, a canal also critically provides a supply of water.

I saw a great diversity of birds on my trip including treecreeper, long-tailed tit, great spotted wood pecker, bullfinch, yellow hammer, sparrowhawk, kestrel, buzzard and even a pair of barn owls. The breadth of species seen will obviously be seasonal, with warblers and swallows in summer and on my rather cold trip, lots of winter thrushes such as fieldfares and redwings.

If you are tempted by a narrowboat holiday, choosing the right time of year is important.

Canals are not always fully open to Narrowboats during winter because that is when repairs are often undertaken. Most people take can holidays in the summer to enjoy the long, light, warm evenings, but the drawback is the higher volume of traffic which makes wildlife watching less productive. Spring and autumn are probably the optimum periods for wildlife.

I went on holiday with an open mind and without any great expectations. I won't be swapping my motor caravan for a narrowboat yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience nonetheless - and there can be no more suitable was of getting to know this very special type of environment.