Down by the canal header

Down by the canal - David Lindo

Despite being man-made, canals can be exciting places. David Lindo tells us all about his discoveries around our urban waterways.

Wild urban waterways

When summer ends and many of our urban wildlife species are busily seeing off the last of the year's offspring, I love strolling along the Grand Union Canal near my west London home, to enjoy the evenings and watch the antics of the juvenile mallards and Canada geese.

It is particularly enjoyable because, along certain stretches of the canal, I hit upon beauty spots where the overhanging willows from the adjacent cemetery mask the fact that I am in the middle of London.

Instead of seeing the backs of the luxury flats that overlook the canal or a dilapidated industrial background, my urban world looks very different.

Moorhen, coot, mallard and Canada geese are a given. But I have also seen patrolling common terns and even a kingfisher perched on an overhang. Despite being man-made, canals can be exciting places.

I remember a late summer cruise on a narrowboat on the Manchester Ship Canal and watching lapwings and a solitary little ringed plover on the foreshore, while consorting on the open water with the mallards was a decidedly out-of-season male goldeneye.

Valuable homes for wildlife

There cannot be a city or town in the UK without some body of water flowing through it and, with a total combined length of 2,200 miles, there is plenty of riparian habitat to explore.

Our urban rivers and canals provide valuable homes for all manner of beasts ranging from bank voles to otters, water boatmen to kingfishers.

But let us not forget the fish that so typify our watercourses. They are much beloved by anglers and are, of course, the barometer with which we measure the health of the ecosystems within our rivers and canals.

It wasn't so long ago that most of our best-known rivers carried with them the acrid stench of industrial pollution and untreated sewage.

The Thames was a classic example. But over time, as we came to our senses and began to clean up our rivers, life began to return. An incredible number of fish species now occur in the Thames, including eels and salmon.

Diamonds in the rough

As a kid in Wembley I was frequently to be found stalking the concrete banks along the River Brent, a tributary of the Thames.

In-between bouts of birding I’d turn my attention to finding life within the polluted waters that were littered with abandoned shopping trolleys and stolen scooters.

Alarming as it may sound today, that watery vista was the norm in those days. Despite the detritus, I still found nymphs, tadpoles and plenty of three-spined sticklebacks.

One day, I looked up along the course of the river to see a grey wagtail picking its way around a semi-aquatic shopping trolley. It was obviously finding some food in that very unnatural landscape.

Such is the cleanliness of our rivers nowadays, it's possible to go for a walk along the raised concreted edge of the Thames at the equally concreted Canary Wharf and come across a frolicking common seal or two.

There has even, famously, been a northern bottlenose whale that was seen swimming upstream near the Albert Bridge in central London. Most of us would never be lucky enough to see a mighty whale coasting past us on an average late summer riverside walk, but the life that we do encounter will continue to astound us.