Conservationists are calling for only horse-drawn barges to travel along a section of the Montgomery Canal when it reopens, to protect rare aquatic plants and wildlife in the deserted waterway.
Naturalist and broadcaster Iolo Williams has been campaigning to protect floating water planes as well as dragonflies, grass snakes, kingfishers and otters in the canal between Arddlin and Llanymynech, which has not been navigable by canal boats for decades, but it is to be restored with £14 million from the government’s leveling fund.
The 33-mile long Montgomery Canal runs from Newtown in Powys to Shropshire and originally carried limestone from Welsh quarries to fertilize farmland before being abandoned in 1944. During decades of disuse, sections of the canal supported Britain’s largest populations of floating terns , and have been designated a special area of conservation (SAC) and a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).
Seven miles of the canal have been restored so far and connected to the rest of the canal network. The leveling of funds will allow the Canal & River Trust-led project to build new road bridges and reopen to motor barges a four-and-a-half-mile stretch between Arddlin and Llanymynech.
Proponents say the restoration will boost tourism revenue and lead to a broader renaissance. But conservationists warn that the propeller boats stir up mud and sediment and could destroy the floating sycamore, a nationally protected and rare species.
Horse boats without propellers are said to glide over the surface of the water and leave the plant intact. The plant could even benefit from this kind of boat traffic, which will maintain the open water 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 much of our pools and lakes and wetlands over the last 80 years — they’ve been drained and gone since I was a kid growing up here,” he said. “The canal is becoming increasingly important for a lot of our wildlife, not just for the floating water-sycamore, but for brown dragonflies, frogs, toads, newts, perch, pike and bream, and it’s the best area in between of Wales for snakes. .
“I’m all for restoring the canal, but if they can make the Montgomeryshire section a horse-race that would be a huge help. It will bring more money to the area – people will have to get up for the night – and having horse boats makes it a much quieter, more relaxed pastime. It will make it more popular.”
Simon Spencer, a local wildlife expert, said: “The canal is great the way it is. No need for destruction. It is currently used by canoes and the entire length of the towpath from Llanymynech to Newtown is enjoyed by cyclists, walkers, bird watchers. If it’s full of boats and a film of oil all over the surface of the water, you won’t get as many people using it. Why spend millions on a few boat moves?
“If the SAC is trashed – and the current project probably will be – it will be the first SAC to be seriously damaged in Britain. All we’re asking is to leave motorized boats out.”
As part of the £14 million restoration, the Canal & River Trust is proposing six hectares of open water nature reserve near the canal to offset the impact of motor boats, with the promenade already developed to move to the new reserves in 2024.
“We will look at what net biodiversity gains we can achieve and how we can combine adjacent habitats,” said Jason Leach, head of external program delivery at the trust. “We’re open and transparent and we want to talk to as many people as possible.”
According to Leach, bringing back boats with horses is impractical because the 1.5 meter wide towpath cannot be shared by horses as well as walkers and cyclists. He said seasonal boat movements on the canal would not generate enough revenue to support the construction of special horse-drawn boats or the year-round stable and feeding of the horses.
On the Rochdale Canal, which is also a SAC and SSSI and was restored and reopened in 2002, the floating water plane has increased in range since 2010 and also thrives in a canal reservoir, Brun Clough, where it has been reintroduced.
The Canal & River Trust is proposing a cap on boat movements on the restored section of the Montgomery Canal, with rare plants being monitored as boats gradually increase to 2,500 annual movements on the already opened sections.
Leach added: “Ultimately plants need disturbance and boats offer the best way to do this. This is the sustainable restoration of the Montgomery Canal for the environment and people.”
Powys County Council, a partner in the Montgomery Canal restoration project, said it would “provide long-term economic, cultural, welfare and recreational benefits for local communities, as well as enhancing wildlife and ecology along the canal corridor”.
A spokesman said: “We are aware of the wildlife concerns that have been raised in recent weeks. These concerns are taken seriously by the council and our partner, the Canal & River Trust, and [we] can assure that any proposals will need to fully comply with habitat regulations to obtain the necessary planning and regulatory consents.”