Britain’s 3,000-mile canal and river network provides great habitats for an abundance of wildlife species. Cruising gently through the countryside, canal boat holiday-makers can enjoy spotting anything from ducks, moorhens, swans and dragonflies, to kingfishers, otters, bats and water voles. And even in city centres, waterways provide safe havens for a wide variety of plants and animals.
Drifters offers over 550 boats for hire from 45 locations across England, Scotland and Wales. Here’s our guide to the best narrowboat holidays for wildlife spotting:
Spot Kingfishers on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal
Isolated from the main canal network, this beautiful waterway in South Wales meanders peacefully for 36 miles through the Brecon Beacons National Park, providing excellent habitat for many woodland and water birds, including kingfishers.
Usually glimpsed as a sudden flash of glistening blue, the ‘King of Fishers’ travels at lightning speeds catching several fish each day. These colourful birds raise up to three broods every season and fiercely defend their territory at all times. There are more than 80 species of kingfisher around the world, but only one is native to Britain.
***On a short break (three or four nights), from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Goytre Wharf on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal near Abergavenny, boaters can cruise to Llangynidr and back, enjoying dramatic views of the Usk Valley. On a week’s break, boaters can cruise as far as the historic market town of Brecon.
Watch out for Bats on the Caldon Canal
The 17-mile long Caldon Canal runs into the Peak District from the Trent & Mersey Canal at Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent, to Froghall Wharf in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Its stunning wooded sections, where it passes through the beautiful Churnet Valley, provide particularly rich habitat for bats.
There are 18 different kinds of bat in Britain, including Daubenton’s bats, also known as the ‘water bat’. They use the canal and river network extensively for foraging and they can frequently be found roosting in hollowed out tree trunks and many of the 200 year old engineering structures, such as bridges and aqueducts, which were built alongside the canals themselves.
Bats can be spotted around dusk as they venture out to hunt their insect prey. They use a highly sophisticated form of radar – high frequency squeak – which bounces off objects back to the bat. This tells it the size, location, velocity and even texture of whatever is in its path.
***On a short break from Drifters’ Peak District narrowboat hire base at Etruria in Stoke on Trent, canal boat holiday-makers can travel into the Peak District along the beautiful Caldon Canal, reaching Cheddleton Flint Mill in around eight hours, passing through 12 locks and travelling just over 11 miles.
Count Dragonflies on the Ashby Canal
A six-mile section of this peaceful waterway in Leicestershire is designated a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), recognising the diversity of its plant, insect and animal life, including nine species of dragonfly
These colourful insects, whose origins began 300 million years ago, are voracious hunters. They use the reed fringes of our canals and rivers as breeding and hunting grounds. They are insects in the sub-order ‘Anisoptera’ meaning “unequal winged” as their hind wings are usually shorter and broader than their forewings.
***On a week’s holiday from our narrowboat hire base on the Grand Union Canal at Braunston, boaters can cruise to the pretty village of Snarestone and back, travelling a total of 47 miles, passing through just eight locks (four there and four back) in around 32 hours. This largely rural route takes boaters up the North Oxford Canal to Rugby and on to Hawkesbury Junction to join the Coventry Canal. Five miles later, the route transfers onto the peaceful lock-free Ashbury Canal, which winds gently through countryside for 22 miles.
Look out for Otters on the Montgomery Canal
This historic waterway runs for 38 miles between England and Wales. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on both sides of the border, and the entire length in Wales is also recognised as a Special Area of Conservation, making it one of the most important sites for wildlife in Europe.
Currently only around half the Montgomery Canal is navigable, including a seven-mile section from its junction with the Llangollen Canal in Shropshire at Frankton Locks to Gronwyn Wharf. Work is underway to restore a further section, extending this navigable stretch to Crickheath. As part of this £4.2million project, which is expected to be completed next year, the Canal & River Trust, Shropshire Union Canal Society and other partners are constructing two nature reserves to ensure important local habitat is protected, including otters and water voles.
Thanks to the work of conservationists, the UK’s population of otters is showing healthy signs of growth after its sad decline in the 1950’s. Lakes, rivers and coastal areas are the otters’ natural habitats but these timid nocturnal creatures can also be seen hunting on quiet stretches of the canals.
***On a short break from our narrowboat hire base on the Llangollen Canal at Chirk, it takes around eight hours to cruise to Gronwyn Wharf on the Montgomery Canal, travelling 15 miles and passing through 10 locks.
Listen for Reed Bunting on the Droitwich Canals
Many birds live and nest amongst the reeds that line sections of our inland waterways, including the moorhen, coot, sage warbler and the chirruping reed bunting. One of the best waterways to see these lively little birds, perched up high on reed tops singing at the top of their voices, are the Droitwich Canals in Worcestershire. These historic waterways offer a linear mosaic of habitats, including substantial reedbeds.
Reed buntings are sparrow-sized but slim with long, deeply notched tails. The male has a black head with a white collar in the summer. The black head becomes a dull brown in the winter. Females have a brown head, buff throat and buff-coloured lines above and below their eyes. Reed buntings feed on seeds and insects and they nest in a cup of grass and moss built on the ground, usually amongst reeds or grasses in a wet or marshy place.
***The Droitwich Canals can be reached on a short break from Drifters’ canal boat holiday rental base at Worcester on the River Severn. The Droitwich Ring, a 21-mile, 33-lock canal boat holiday circuit which takes around 16 hours to navigate, takes in sections of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and the River Severn, as well as the Droitwich Barge and Junction canals.
Drifters’ 2020 hire prices start at £554 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £791 for a week. Tuition is included in all Drifters holiday packages.