Supporting biodiversity around waterways and canals

Find out why waterways and canals are important to wildlife - and discover how to support local waterway environments.

17th June 2024

Despite there being 2,500km of canals in the UK, canals and waterways aren’t always at the forefront of our minds when we consider wildlife. However, canals and waterways offer an incredibly diverse freshwater habitat for wildlife (more about which wildlife species call canals home later!).

While waterways, like rivers and streams, would’ve once carved a natural path through our native landscape, canals are man-made. It’s estimated that around 95% of canals in the UK have poor water quality often due to human activities, including pollution and damage caused by boats.   

Our ‘Tails’ of UK Wildlife campaign aims to give a voice to nature. So, we’re exploring the reasons waterways are important, activities having negative impacts on them, and how you can support your local waterway and/or canal environment…

Positive impacts of waterways and canals

Understanding how waterways and canals have a positive impact on biodiversity can help us take care of the wildlife and plants that call them home. 

Providing wildlife habitats

Canals and waterways provide a rich array of habitats for a diverse range of wildlife, including:

  • Invertebrates, like the dragonfly.
  • Plants, like the white water-lily.
  • Amphibians, like the newt.
  • Birds, like the kingfisher.
  • Reptiles, like the grass snake.
  • Mammals, like the water vole.

Connecting parks, woodland, and countryside 

Thanks to the towpaths bordering canals, there’s ample opportunity to travel along pathways that connect urban areas with natural environments, such as parks and woodland walks. Improving access to nature can support mental health, since it inspires calmness and creativity. 

Additionally, the accessibility of canal towpaths could help to reduce the carbon footprint of the walkers and cyclists who use them.

Waterways generate hydropower

Another means by which waterways lower our population’s carbon footprint is by generating hydropower – saving a whopping 9,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year! 

Through generating around 20 million KwH, the hydropower produced by our waterways is the equivalent of powering approximately 6,200 households.

Actions that can have a negative impact on waterways

Unfortunately, there are actions undertaken to manage waterways that can have a negative impact on the environment, wildlife, and local ecosystems. 


Dredging is a process that involves removing material from a waterway using heavy machinery.  

Although there’s some benefit to dredging, e.g. to lower water levels in rivers at risk of flooding, this action destroys wildlife habitats and causes problems like increased erosion downstream. 

Fishery management

The management of commercial fisheries creates pollution due to the waste they produce, as well as through the chemical pesticides used to control parasites and disease. 

Fish farming could also be linked to habitat loss and the spreading of diseases or parasites to wild fish populations living nearby.

Overfishing and bycatch

Overfishing has a devastating impact on biodiversity because a lower number of fish might result in an unbalanced increase and/or decrease of other species throughout the food chain. 

When wildlife gets caught accidentally during fishing, it becomes ‘bycatch’. Sadly, wildlife can be harmed or killed if they become bycatch due to fishing activities.  

How to support wildlife habitats along waterways and canals

Here’s a few of the ways you’re able to support wildlife habitats along waterways and canals:

Litter picking

Owing to the harm caused to wildlife by litter, getting involved with litter picking events could make a hugely positive difference to your local waterway and/or canal environment. 

Volunteering for local charities

Spending a small slice of spare time volunteering for a local charity, to help them care for canals and/or waterways, is a wonderful step to take towards a nature-friendly future. 

Enjoying canals and waterways 

Perhaps the most significant way to protect canal and waterway ecosystems is to spend time enjoying them. If you fall in love with the wildlife who call canals and waterways home, you’re more likely to inspire others to care about them, too.

Looking for more inspiration around steps you can take towards a wilder future? Check out our articles on recording wildlife, simple swaps, and caring for wildlife in a pet-safe way to discover what you can do to nurture the nature around you!

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