Environmentalists are calling for only horse barges to operate when the Montgomery Canal reopens to protect rare aquatic plants and wildlife on the renovated waterway.
Naturalist and TV presenter Iolo Williams has joined a campaign to protect floating gobies as well as dragonflies, grass snakes, kingfishers and otters on the canal between Arddlin and Llanymynech, which has been off-limits to canal boats for decades but is due to be restored with £14m from the government equalization fund.
The 33-mile Montgomery Canal runs from Newtown in Powys to Shropshire and originally transported limestone from Welsh quarries to fertilize farmland before it was abandoned in 1944. During decades of disuse, sections of the canal came to support Britain’s largest populations of floating water banana and have been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a 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 equalization funds will enable the Canal & River Trust project to build new road bridges and reopen to motorized barges on the four and a half mile stretch between Arddlin and Llanymynech.
Supporters argue that the renovation will increase tourist revenue and contribute to wider regeneration. However, conservationists warn that propeller boats stir up mud and sediment and could damage the floating water goby, a protected and nationally rare species.
They say that horse-drawn boats without propellers glide over the surface of the water and leave the plant unscathed. The plant could even benefit from the kind of boat traffic that would keep the open waters it needs to thrive.
Williams said the canal was a “fantastic asset” to mid Wales wildlife and urged the Canal & River Trust to work with campaigners.
“We’ve lost so many of our pools, ponds and wetlands over the last 80 years – they’ve been drained and gone since I grew up here as a kid,” he said. “The canal is becoming more and more important for many species of fauna and flora, not only floating gobies, but also brown dragonflies, frogs, toads, newts, perch, pikes and breams. This is the best area in mid Wales for grass snakes.
“I’m all for restoring the canal, but if they could do the Montgomeryshire section as horseback it would be a huge help. It will bring more money to the area – people will have to stay overnight – and having horse-drawn boats makes it a much quieter and more casual pastime. This will make it more popular.”
Simon Spencer, a local wildlife expert, said: “The canal is wonderful. It doesn’t need demolition. Currently, it is used by canoeists, and the entire length of the towpath from Llanymynech to Newtown is used by cyclists, walkers, bird watchers. If it is full of boats and oil film on the surface of the water, it will not be used by so many people. Why spend millions on a few boat moves?
“If the SAC is destroyed – and the current project is likely to destroy it – it will be the first severely damaged SAC in the UK. All we’re asking is simply to skip the motor boats.”
As part of a £14m restoration, the Canal & River Trust is proposing six hectares of open nature reserve close to the canal to offset the impact of motor boats, with floating plantain already being cultivated for transfer to new reserves in 2024.
“We will be looking at what net biodiversity gains we can make and how we can connect neighboring habitats,” said Jason Leach, head of external program delivery at the Trust. “We are open and transparent and want to talk to as many people as possible.”
According to Leach, reintroducing horseboats is impractical because the 1.5 meter wide towpath cannot be used by horses, pedestrians and cyclists alike. He said the canal’s seasonal boat movements would not generate enough revenue to support the building of special horse boats or stables and feeding the horses all year round.
On the Rochdale Canal, which is also an SAC and SSSI and was restored and reopened in 2002, the range of the floating water goby has increased since 2010 and is also thriving on the Brun Clough Canal Reservoir where it has been reintroduced.
The Canal & River Trust proposes to reduce boat traffic on the restored section of the Montgomery Canal, with rare plants monitored, as boats are gradually increased to 2,500 annual movements on the already reopened sections.
Leach added: “Ultimately, plants need unrest, and boats offer the best way to do that. It is a sustainable renovation 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, well-being and recreational benefits to local communities, as well as enhancing wildlife and ecology along the canal corridor.”
A spokesman said: “We are aware of the concerns about wildlife that have been raised in recent weeks. The Council and our partner, Canal & River Trust, take these concerns seriously and (we) can assure you that any proposals will need to fully comply with Habitat Regulations to obtain the necessary planning and regulatory approvals.