The Canal supports a rich and vibrant variety of wildlife and provides a great opportunity to get close to nature. In recognition of this, the Canal was declared a Local Nature Reserve in 2005.
The Grand Western Canal is an attractive stretch of isolated canal, winding its way through the soft rural landscape of Mid Devon, enticing an abundance of local wildlife. Although the canal is wholly man-made, its plant and animal communities are mostly natural, having colonised the site as it has matured and suitable habitats have developed.
The wildlife of the canal is vulnerable to pollution and sedimentation. In response to this we have entered into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme which will provide funding for work that will include creating buffer strips along the offside banks, resuming coppicing in the canal cuttings and restoring the hedgerows that flank the towpath. The Grand Western Canal has also become a partner in the Interreg IIIb Crosscut project, which is an EU-funded project looking into sustainable canal management. It involves work on sustainable dredging practices and working with farmers to reduce future siltation.
The canal is a mass of colour in spring and summer with an abundance of wild flowers growing along the water’s edge. Look out for the Early-purple and Common-spotted Orchids in certain places and the elegant White Water-lily. In recent years there has been concern that the Canal’s White Water Lilies are declining.
Unlike many other canals, the bankside vegetation at the Grand Western Canal is allowed to grow throughout the summer providing a profusion of wildflowers and the insects which feed on and around them.
Hegderows run beside the towpath throughout most of the length of the Canal, providing ideal habitats for many birds, mammals, plants and insects. These are ‘laid’ by traditional methods periodically to promote their vigour. You may see examples of recently laid hedges where the stems are partially cut and bent over, winding between poles to create a living fence. Some fantastic examples of mature Oaks may be found within the hedgerow and new ‘standard’ trees are left to grow on at intervals, when the hedges are laid.
The hedgerows and bankside vegetation provide food, shelter and a safe corridor for movement between habitats for bird species including Grey Wagtail, Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler, and small mammals such as Bank Voles and Shrews. One of the most exciting Mammals to be found along the canal is the Otter. Evidence of their activity is being recorded regularly in the Country Park.
The canal is home to a wide variety of fish including Tench, Perch, Bream, Rudd, Roach, Carp and Pike. An excellent mixed fishery with above average stocking levels, means that the Canal presents a good challenge to anglers.
Most mammals are shy creatures but if you look carefully, particularly near dusk or dawn, you may be able to spot Roe Deer, Foxes or Badgers in or around the Country Park.
A number of bat species use the Canal for feeding and as a safe corridor to travel between roosts and feeding areas. The Canal Ranger Service lead bat walks each year when you will be able to see, hear and learn more about the bats found in Country Park.
One of the most elusive mammals to be found along the Canal is the Otter. In recent years they have made a strong recovery in the Westcountry and evidence of their activity is being recorded regularly in the Country Park.
A sadder story is that of the Water Vole, which once thrived on the Grand Western Canal. The introduction of American Mink in the last century has led to a dramatic decline in this charismatic species throughout England, and there is currently only thought to be one small re-introduced population in the whole of Devon and Cornwall. However, Water Voles are still present in the Somerset Levels and Dorset and work is underway to encourage them back to Devon. The Canal may be able to play a prominent role in this initiative in the future.
Waterfowl are found along most stretches – Moorhens, Mute Swans and Mallards are a common sight. Other bird species found along the canal include the Kingfisher, which is regularly seen fishing in the water. The Canal plays host to a range of bird species. Kingfishers are commonly seen fishing along the Canal between late summer and early spring. These birds are actually quite common along the canal, but very hard to spot. The best time to see them is when they fly just above the water level flashing blue against the sunlight.
The hedgerows, trees and wildflower-rich canal banks provide food and shelter for many bird species. Those particularly associated with the watery margins include Grey Wagtail, Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler. Rarer sightings within the Country Park include Water Rail, Little Grebe (Dabchick) and Snipe.
The canal provides food, shelter and nesting sites for a large variety of birds, ranging from the conspicuous Mute Swans and Mallards, to the secretive warblers that hide away in the reeds and other vegetation. Despite not being able to see all the species present along the canal, most of them can be heard very distinctly. Catch the dawn chorus during the summer months to enjoy a medley of entertaining and beautiful birdsong.
Some unusual species of bird have been recorded in the Country Park in recent years. The uncommon Water Rail has been sighted on occasions and the Little Grebe has been present on the waterway. In addition to the waterfowl numerous woodland species have been seen including all three species of Woodpecker. The evidence of a variety of bird species is a good indicator that the canal is a rich diverse mix of habitats. Many common species can also be found along the canal, gathering at the picnic sites to be fed and flitting in amongst the trees on the canal banks. They include Robins, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Blackbirds, Sparrows and Blue Tits.
A number of dedicated volunteers have been collecting data and carrying out surveys on the bird species found along the canal. If you are at all interested in bird watching then this information will be of interest to you.
The waterway is teeming with freshwater invertebrates such as Water Boatmen and Damselfly larvae. The canal is also a hot spot for Insects, such as butterflies and dragonflies during spring, summer and early autumn, feasting on nectar and smaller insects sheltering in the vegetation. A very notable new dragonfly record for the canal was made last year with a small population of Scarce Chasers being confirmed between Ayshford Bridge and Ebear Bridge. Initially spotted by Rangers operating the weed-cutting boat, this is the first record of this dragonfly breeding in Devon.
With the extravagant array of wild flowers along the towpath during the summer months there is an abundance of insect life.
The Canal is also a hot spot for butterflies and dragonflies in spring, summer and early autumn, feasting on nectar and smaller insects sheltering in the vegetation. The section of canal between Sampford Peverell and Westleigh is particularly rich in dragonflies, including the rare Scarce Chaser, and an information panel telling you all you need to know about where, when and what to look for is located near Ebear Bridge.
The most obvious insects that can be seen on a visit to the canal are the butterflies. Common species found along the canal include the colourful Peacock and Red Admiral, and the more delicate Common Blue, Comma and Gatekeeper. It is also worth looking out for caterpillars in amongst the grasses and nettles on the towpath, as they will be the next generation of butterflies to admire on a walk.
Here are some casual observation records of butterfly species found along the canal over several years:
Dragonflies and damselflies
A variety of dragonfly and damselfly species are found throughout the country park. The Common Blue Damselfly is very easy to spot hovering in amongst the shallow water vegetation, and the large impressive Emperor Dragonfly can be seen flying along the hedgerows looking for small insects to feed on. They seem to be very inquisitive creatures and have been known to fly very close to people, close enough so you can hear their wings flapping.
The insect life under the water is just as busy and fascinating as above. Dragonflies start their lives under the water. The larvae prey on other freshwater insects, and are quite aggressive killers. Water boatmen are another species found in the canal. They are very noticeable by their very long back legs, which they use as oars to move around. Another indicative feature of this species is that they swim on their backs.
The insect life in the Grand Western Canal Country Park is very important in the chain of life in the countryside. Insects provide the basis of the food chain and without them the chain would fall apart and other wildlife would suffer.
The following dragonfly and damselfly species have been recorded within the country park.
Species Flight period Where to look Common Blue Damselfly
Late May – Early September Widespread Blue-tailed Damselfly
Mid May – Early August Widespread Azure Damselfly
Late May –
Mainly between Sampford Peverell and Ebear Red-eyed Damselfly
Mid May – Early September Mainly around Greenway Bridge and East Manley Large Red Damselfly
Late May – Mid August Mainly between Sampford Peverell and Ebear Banded Demoiselle
June – July Widespread Beautiful Demoiselle
Late May – Late August Widespread Hairy Dragonfly
Mid May –
Uncommon Migrant Hawker
Mid August – Mid October Widespread Southern Hawker
July – Early October Widespread Emperor Dragonfly
Mid June – Early August Widespread Black-tailed Skimmer
Mid June – Mid August Widespread Broad bodied Chaser
Late May – Early August Widespread Scarce Chaser
Late May – Early July Mainly between Ayshford Bridge to Ebear Bridge Common Darter
Late June – Mid October Widespread especially between Waytown Tunnel and Lowdwells
For more information about dragonflies and damselflies, please visit the British Dragonfly Society website.
The Rangers – with the help of a few dedicated volunteers – participate in survey work and the collation of casual records throughout the year. We have good records for the birds, butterflies and dragonflies, and much work has been done on surveying aquatic and bankside plants. The Ranger Service would be interested to know about any sightings of rare or notable wildlife along the Canal. Please contact us with your findings on 01884 254072 or at email@example.com. Find out more about the bird, butterfly and dragonfly (coming soon) sightings from 2015.
For more information on wildlife found in Mid Devon please contact Mid Devon Natural History Society.