Thursday, 28 June 2012

Basingstoke Canal Revisited

The Basingstoke Canal at the beginning of restoration
 activities. It was a long time before this dredger
actually began operations. Note how well vegetated the
towpath is in the middle distance
A view taken from Odiham Wharf bridge, 2012.
Although the canal looks neat and tidy as do most
waterways today, the price of this organisation is the
total loss of its biological richness
It was late June in 2012 that my wife and I made a visit to the Basingstoke Canal to see how it has developed since its restoration. Repeats of photographs that had been taken in the 1970s were taken from the same position. Although one or two narrow boats were seen, not a single craft was observed actually using the canal, there was one person fishing. This underlines my opinion that following restoration, the Canal is neither one thing nor the other. It is not a major recreation resource, nor does much of the rich wildlife present in the 1970s survive. As will be seen from comparison of the photographs, very little wildlife survives at all, and the current canal landscape is very similar to that of any of Britain’s other waterways. As in the photograph shown in my previous blog of the Kennet and Avon Canal, the water is opaque and brown. No one in their right mind would contemplate drawing a pint of Basingstoke Canal water and downing it today.

At Crookham Wharf, I recorded part of a notice board displaying aspects of the Canal. The following is a quotation from that notice.

    The Canal is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI),
    teeming with wildlife. It has a huge variety of dragonflies and
    damselflies and has more types of aquatic plant than any other
    water body in Britain. The Greywell Tunnel west of Odiham, is

    Britain’s largest bat hibernation site.

A view looking east from Pondtail Bridge in Fleet in 1975.
Note the rich, and varied surface vegetation as well
as the zone of aquatic vegetation between the bank
and the water. These conditions would have been
ideal habitat for breeding and hunting dragonflies
A view looking east from the old Pondtail Bridge taken from
the same place as the 1975 photograph. The view is blocked
by the recently constructed road bridge
The Basingstoke Canal beyond the recently built road bridge
taken in June 2012. Note the total lack of any surface vegetation.
While there is a considerable biomass of bank-side
aquatic vegetation, very few species are present
Looking at the Canal and its wildlife today, it is certainly neither teeming with wildlife, nor does it support a huge variety of dragonflies. The biodiversity of plant life is very low. Having written it personally way back in the 1970s, I believe the quotation was taken originally from the label for the Willis Museum, Basingstoke display portraying the Canal. In those days, this statement would have been true. The claim that the Greywell Tunnel is the largest bat roosting site in Britain is huge, but if this is so, it underlines how important the Canal was for wildlife in the past.

A rustic bridge crossing a dried out section of the canal in
the early 1970s, and prior to any restoration. Although lacking
any obvious practical value, or ecological importance, the view
has a unique rustic quality. It is sad that a prospect of such
charm could not have survived restoration, or that it
was not valued in any way by the Canal Society
During the visit my wife and I made to the Canal recently, I saw neither damsel nor dragonflies, even though this should be the height of the flying season for them. The weather on the day was bright and sunny, ideal for dragonflies to be hunting actively. I spotted no surface vegetation whatsoever, and just two birds that could be considered as being associated with it. These were a moorhen and a drake mallard, both species that can tolerate moderate disturbance and a less than pristine aquatic environment.

The Royal Military Canal to the west of Hythe in Kent.
The surface vegetation here is rich even though the
yellow flowered species is Nymphoides peltata.
Fringed Water-lily which is not a native species
in this part of Kent. The water is clean and ideal for
dragonflies. However, there is no zone of aquatic bank
vegetation between the grassy bank and the water itself
on the right hand side. On the left, a plant looking very like
Glyceria maxima. Sweet Reed-grass forms two clumps,
and there appears to be a limited wetland vegetation in the
middle distance

In the 1990s, I visited the Royal Military Canal near Hythe in Kent. This waterway was built as a defensive measure and was finished in 1804. Since then it has developed a rich flora and fauna and is a candidate site to rival the ecological richness that was once the Basingstoke Canal. Aquatic sites such as the Basingstoke Canal are in short supply, and if any as rich as the Basingstoke Canal do survive, the ecological importance that they represent should be valued, and taken into account strongly when any conservation or restoration plans are put forward.

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