Ecology of the Lancaster Canal
The canal forms a valuable wildlife corridor through towns and farmland. Originally man made, it has become naturalised over time, enabling species to survive and thrive where otherwise they would be unable. A walk along the towpath is, effectively, a walk into the heart of the country, even though you may only be a stone’s throw from human habitation, a built up environment or an area of intensive agriculture. The whole of the Lancashire section of the canal is designated a Biological Heritage Site and is the largest water body in the county.
The canal is perhaps at its most lovely in summer, when the banks are rich in wild flowers, but each season is lovely in its own way, as seed heads and berries grace the autumn days and winter frost can be spectacular on the skeletons of waterside plants. In spring everything becomes new again and trees are bursting with buds and birds are busy with nesting.
Along the canal several different plant habitats run in parallel; the true aquatic plants, the marginals (which like their feet in water but grow above it), the water loving meadow plants, the hedgerows, which line the towpath, and finally the trees. Watch how the plant communities change as you walk or ride along, sometimes through wooded cuttings, sometimes in the open. Also notice how the condition of the banks affect the ecology. The old collapsed banks will have the richest variety of species. The disturbed ground of restored or newly cut banks or upgraded towpaths will be more sparsely vegetated by a limited variety of colonising species; other species will follow.
In the open reaches the fluffy meadow sweet is common, and the yellow flag iris often grows with it. There are drifts of reedmace (bulrush) with its characteristic brown pokers, and the rosebay willow herb, which is especially lovely in the late summer. There is water mint, wild angelica, marjoram, various vetches, buttercups, and many more. At the northern end of the canal a change in plant species reflects the change in the underlying rock to limestone. Here you will find harebells, lady’s bedstraw, the cut leaved cranesbill, and other calcium loving plants.
Along the hedges are blackberries, elder, hawthorn and blackthorn. In the wooded cuttings shelter from winds and low levels of light produce a different association of plants. In spring you may smell wild garlic. There will be hart’s tongue ferns and the ready supply of rotting wood will support a rich variety of fungi, visible in the autumn. The cutting at Salwick is a good example of mixed woodland where beech trees colour up particularly well in the autumn. Elsewhere trees have been planted along the waters edge. Ash is common. Larch was planted both as a windbreak on exposed sections and as a resource to provide timber for canal maintenance work.
The stone walls provide a discrete environment for ferns, mosses and lichens. On permanently submerged walls, particularly below bridges, you can see the bright green mats of fresh water sponge. Most people are familiar with the floating round leaves and flowers of the water lily in summer, but the plants can also be seen in winter, if the water is clear, growing like cabbages on the canal bottom.
Bird life is abundant. On the water, look out for mallards, coots, moorhens and mute swans. These are especially prevalent in the built up areas, tempted by the prospect of an easy meal. Glasson basin is locally important as a wintering site for diving ducks, including pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye and goosander. Cormorant also occur there in large numbers. Swallows and martins are summer visitors in many areas and can be seen flying low over the water where they feed on flying insects. You may see heron flying along or silently waiting in the shallows and, if you are lucky, you will catch the sudden bright turquoise flash of a kingfisher as it dips.
The hedges that border the more open sections of the towpath support a good variety of finches, tits and warblers. In adjacent fields expect to see and hear lapwing, skylark, pipit and buntings. In the wooded cuttings there are blackbirds, song thrushes, wrens, blackcaps, goldcrests and wood pigeons.
The summer wild flowers attract a number of butterflies, including meadow brown, tortoise shell, red admiral and the common blue. Dragonflies and the smaller damselflies can be seen darting about or basking in the sun. Watch the surface of the water for the long legged pond skater and the small whirligig beetle, which are supported by the surface tension.
Small mammals such as shrews and water voles live in the banks, but these are shy; the best chance you may have of seeing one is from the window of a moored boat when it doesn’t know you are watching! Larger mammals such as deer and fox have been seen using the well-vegetated canal banks to move from one area to another. The various structures and retaining walls of bridges, aqueducts and buildings are full of cracks, crevices and voids, which provide roosting sites for several species of bat, and an abundance of aerial insects provides a rich food supply for them.
Remember to bring along your wild flower and your bird books if you are interested in identifying the hundreds of different species that enjoy living here, and please always follow the Country Code.