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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Patrick Barkham

Calls to limit boat traffic to protect wildlife on restored Welsh canal

A section of the Montgomery canal in Shropshire
A section of the Montgomery canal in Shropshire. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy

Conservationists are calling for only horse-drawn barges to journey along a section of the Montgomery canal when it is reopened, to protect rare aquatic plants and wildlife on the rewilded waterway.

The naturalist and broadcaster Iolo Williams has joined the campaign to protect floating water-plantain as well as dragonflies, grass snakes, kingfishers and otters on the canal between Arddlin and Llanymynech, which has been unnavigable to canal boats for decades but is to be restored with £14m from the government’s levelling up fund.

The 33-mile Montgomery canal runs from Newtown in Powys to Shropshire and originally carried limestone from Welsh quarries to fertilise farmland before it was abandoned in 1944. During decades of disuse, sections of the canal came to support the largest populations of floating water-plantain in Britain, and they have been designated a special area of conservation (SAC) and site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Seven miles of the canal have so far been restored and connected to the rest of the canal network. The levelling up funds will enable the Canal & River Trust-led project to build new road bridges and reopen to motorised barges a four-and-a-half-mile stretch between Arddlin and Llanymynech.

Supporters say the restoration will boost tourist revenues and drive wider regeneration. But conservationists warn that boats with propellers stir up mud and sediment and could destroy the floating water-plantain, a protected and nationally scarce species.

They say horse-drawn boats without propellers glide over the surface of the water and would leave the plant unharmed. The plant could even benefit from this kind of boat traffic, which would maintain the open water that it needs to thrive.

Williams said the canal was a “fantastic asset” for wildlife in mid-Wales and called on the Canal & River Trust to work with campaigners.

“We’ve lost so many of our pools and ponds and wetlands over the past 80 years – they’ve been drained and disappeared from when I was a kid growing up here,” he said. “The canal has become increasingly important for a lot of our wildlife, not just the floating water-plantain but brown hawker dragonflies, frogs, toads, newts, perch, pike and bream, and it’s the best area in mid-Wales for grass snakes.

“I’m all for restoring the canal but if they can do the Montgomeryshire section as horse-drawn, that would be a huge help. It’s going to bring more money into the area – people will have to pull up for the night – and having horse-drawn boats makes it a much quieter, more leisurely pastime. It will make it more popular.”

Simon Spencer, a local wildlife expert, said: “The canal is wonderful as it is. It doesn’t need wrecking. It is currently used by canoeists and the whole length of the towpath from Llanymynech to Newtown is enjoyed by cyclists, walkers, birdwatchers. If it’s full of boats and oil film across the water-surface, you won’t have as many people using it. Why spend millions on a few boat movements?

“If the SAC is trashed – and the current project probably will trash it – it will be the first SAC to be seriously damaged in Britain. All we’re asking for is just leave out the motorised boats.”

As part of the £14m restoration, the Canal & River Trust is proposing six hectares of open water nature reserve near the canal to compensate for the impact of motorised boats, with the floating water-plantain already being grown for translocation into the new reserves in 2024.

“We’ll be looking at what biodiversity net gains we can do and how we can draw adjacent habitats together,” said Jason Leach, the head of external programme delivery at the trust. “We’re open and transparent and we want to talk to as many people as possible.”

According to Leach, reintroducing horse-drawn boats is not practical because the towpath, at 1.5 metres wide, cannot be shared by horses as well as walkers and cyclists. He said the seasonal boat movements on the canal would not generate enough revenue to support building special horse-drawn boats, or stabling and feeding the horses throughout the year.

On the Rochdale canal, which is also an SAC and SSSI and was restored and reopened in 2002, the floating water-plantain has increased in range since 2010 and is also thriving on a canal reservoir, Brun Clough, where it was reintroduced.

The Canal & River Trust is proposing a cap on boat movements on the restored section of the Montgomery canal, with the rare plants monitored as boats are gradually increased to the 2,500 annual movements on the already reopened sections.

Leach added: “Ultimately the plants need disturbance and the boats offer the best way to do that. This is sustainable restoration of the Montgomery canal for the environment and people.”

Powys county council, a partner on the Montgomery canal restoration project, said it would “provide long-term economic, cultural, wellbeing and recreational benefits for local communities as well as enhancing the wildlife and ecology along the canal corridor”.

A spokesperson said: “We are aware of the wildlife concerns that have been raised in recent weeks. These concerns are being taken seriously by the council and our partner, the Canal & River Trust, and [we] can reassure that any proposals will need to comply fully with the habitat regulations to achieve the necessary planning and regulatory consents.”

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