Despite being man-made, all canals have considerable value and importance for natural heritage, especially in landscape and wildlife terms. The Cotswold Canals fit into this national picture, and have significant value for natural heritage. Conservation and enhancement of landscape and wildlife features will therefore be an essential element of the restoration.
|Canals - a significant and biodiverse habitat|
Nationally the canal network has become an integral part of the British landscape and wildlife began colonising them as soon as they were built. Though constructed for freight transport, canal channels can now be a significant wildlife habitat. Colonisation by many plants and animals soon after construction and with help from plantings and fish stocking, canal environments can be very ‘biodiverse’. Ecological features include fisheries, a great range of invertebrate species, many submerged and emergent aquatic plants, plus water birds and waterside mammals.
The Canals Partnership is determined and committed to ensuring that the project takes an informed and practical approach to conservation of the canal’s environment and biodiversity. The Conservation Management Plan is critical in ensuring this, by providing a comprehensive assessment of natural and man made assets and determining how they are, or could be, valued.
The biodiversity, or wealth of wildlife of canals can be considerable. Many key habitats are associated with canals – and its not just water! The banks, towpath, embankments and engineering structures all have some wildlife value too. British Waterways biodiversity guidance recognises a range of generic habitats and species groups – and advocates the compilation of tailored biodiversity plans for individual canals. These Waterway Biodiversity Action Plans aim to conserve and enhance the wildlife value of canals.
|Creating habitat - installation of bat bricks|
The biodiversity value of the Cotswold Canals has been assessed and reviewed using a number of specialist surveys – including habitat mapping, breeding bird surveys, aquatic plant assessments, amphibian surveys and reptile surveys. These have shown that the canals are representative of canals nationally and already contain many different habitats and have significant value for many species. However, there is a need for new management work to conserve and enhance these habitats and species.
Habitat creation along the channel, towpath and verges is critical to the restoration and will contribute to local, regional and national biodiversity targets. The landscape wide approach being adopted to the environment will help to ensure biodiversity gains are maximised.
In national terms canals represent a diverse mixture of heritage structures including engineering creations, functional architecture and living accommodation. This national heritage, which includes brick accommodation bridges, wooden lift bridges, stone and cast-iron aquaducts, stable blocks, lock cottages, trim such as bollards and mileposts, and wartime defence structures, is a fragile and finite resource requiring active conservation.
|Bridges - unique features of built heritage|
Built structures give every canal a unique character and identity, partly through design of construction and partly through the materials used. For the Cotswold Canals the built heritage has been assessed through a Heritage Survey undertaken in 2003 and through a review of archive and published material on the history of the canals. This information has provided a firm knowledge base - but additional knowledge will be gathered and sought as the project develops, particularly through consultation.
The assessment so far has looked at the importance of built structures with regard to:
- The history of the Stroud Valleys
- Associations with the life and works of specific people and communities
- Aesthetic qualities and creative and technical achievement
- Their contribution to understanding history
- Uncommon or endangered aspects of waterway heritage
- Demonstrating the characteristics of British Inland waterways
Link - to the Cotswold Archaelogy Survey
|Volunteer archaeology works at Ebley|
Other heritage features
Many waterway features have been demolished, or only exist as underground remains, particularly on disused canals.
The Cotswold project includes a number of key archaeological sites, most notably Brimscome Port. Archaeological investigation and recording will be a key element of the project.
The most recent archaelogical investigation and recording was undertaken in May, adjacent to the new bridge being constructed at Ebley Mill. This work was undertaken by local volunteers. Several more archaeological works are to be undertaken throughout the restoration, in which volunteers will be heavily involved.
Other elements of the canals' heritage are more moveable - including historic canal vessels, and historic everyday artefacts such as archive papers and trade tokens.
The Cotswold Canals were particularly interesting for their vessels - the Stroudwater was built for Severn Trows and the Thames & Severn for Thames Barges - both vessels originally designed as sailing vessels for the main rivers and estuaries. Brimscombe Port was built to tranship cargo from one type of vessel to the other.
|Historic T&S token|
Brimscombe was also significant for other vessels - as there were serveral boat-building yards there. These included Abdela & Mitchell, who exported boats all over the world, and were particularly well-known for their small paddle steamers sent out to the tropics. Those too large for the canal were manufactured in kit form. No original boats survive on the canals today - but some are known to exist elsewhere.
The Canal archives, largely held at Gloucestershire Record Office, are another significant heritage feature. This archive, said to be the best canal archive in the country, is already proving invaluable in conservation and restoration planning and will be consulted throughout the project.
A less tangible element of the canals' heritage is their social history - the story of their use and links with the community at large. This is ongoing - indeed the restoration project itself will become a key element of the canal social history.