The Montgomery Canal: Restoring a Site of Special Scientific Interest

Current canal restoration, with newt exclusion fencing

This blog has some historical information, but please indulge me as I include some information from a previous job restoring the Montgomery Canal!  The canal is a SSSI for large sections of its length and also a SAC in Wales, primarily for rare aquatic plants, which happily co-existed with horse-drawn barges, but do not like modern propellers and silt disturbance.  Add in 127 listed structures, the 1986 Parliamentary Acct to restore the canal and many active restoration volunteers and you have quite a mix.

The restoration now follows a Conservation Management Strategy which, showing my age, I wrote for the Montgomery Canal Partnership around fifteen years ago.  Focussing on the whole canal corridor it was in some ways a forerunner of the wider landscape scale schemes that the Heritage Lottery Fund and others now promote.  The restoration progresses slowly, but the good news is that the CMS remains the framework for ongoing work.

Launching the Conservation Management Strategy (less grey hairs then!)

The current restoration has to meet standards not envisaged by the Parliamentary Act, and has to show net gains in biodiversity, in common with all other new developments, including bringing the SSSIs up to favourable condition status.  The solution on the Montgomery is a series of off-line nature reserves, making use of water flows around the locks, which means that the canal and reserves function as single connected habitat.

Phase 2 construction of Aston Nature Reserve

Meanwhile a small army of volunteers has been pressing ahead with restoration of the actual canal, with the Shropshire Union Canal Society running regular work parties.  I recently spent a weekend with them and it was good to see the steady, if slow, progress.  But you can not rush a fine wine!

Phase 2 now fully established

Having dealt with SSSI consents for the new nature reserves the channel works have required special measures to relocate a Great Crested Newts colony that had taken up residence at Crickheath Wharf.  This has involved exclusion fencing, the creation of a series of small ponds to the side of the canal and a rescue and relocation exercise.  Log piles covered in soil have been built next to the ponds to provide habitat for winter hibernation.

Ponds constructed for Great Crested Newts

The current funding for the restoration sees plans to open the canal to Crickheath, but the next phase will hopefully take the re-opened canal as far as Llanymynech, the original destination of the Canal.  Llanymynech Heritage Area is a fascinating site, with a large quarry, incline railways and a restored Hoffman lime kiln as well as the old canalside wharfs.  Amazing the infrastructure behind early nineteenth century agricultural improvement.

Off site compensation is often viewed as a last resort, but if we are to be ambitious and genuinely deliver an improved environment for future generations, then thinking big is essential.  Creating and linking existing habitats off-site can achieve more than trying to squeeze in some biodiversity gains on-site.  Off-line nature reserves on the Montgomery Canal are a move in this direction, but where were the rare aquatic plants before the canal was opened in 1796?  Probably in the marshes and ox-bow lakes of the River Severn flood plain.

Stephen Lees