Memorandum by the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds (IW 56)
THE POTENTIAL OF INLAND WATERWAYS
Inland waterways act as green corridors bringing
wildlife into towns and intensively managed agricultural areas
and linking fragmented habitats. The RSPB makes the following
the RSPB supports, in principle,
the Government's wish to encourage the development of inland waterways,
if it is consistent with Government commitments to protect and
enhance biodiversity. The environmental consequences of any development
of inland waterways must be fully assessed at an early stage,
with all the environmental consequences investigated. Nature conservation
should take precedence on those parts of the inland waterway network
designated for nature conservation interest;
in the interests of integrated river
basin management, and in the light of the EU Water Framework Directive,
the Environment Agency should be given responsibility for navigation
on all navigable rivers;
with Government's international and
national commitments to biodiversity all bodies with a responsibility
for navigation on inland waterways should be given a duty to protect
and further nature conservation; and
a statutory code of practice should
be developed to act as a standard for all navigation authorities,
with specific reference to protecting and furthering nature conservation
and assisting in the delivery of UK Biodiversity action plan targets.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
welcomes this opportunity to present evidence on the potential
of inland waterways. The RSPB is the largest wildlife conservation
organisation in Europe with 1 million members. We manage one of
the largest conservation estates in the UK147 nature reserves,
covering more than 100,000 hectares, including habitats relevant
to this inquiry such as wet grassland, reedbeds and estuaries.
The RSPB takes an active interest in a wide range of environmental
and land-use issues and employs specialist staff to advise on
The value of inland waterways for wildlife
Navigable rivers, canals and the land that adjoins
them are especially rich habitats for wildlife. They can be green
corridors bringing wildlife into towns and intensively managed
agricultural areas and linking fragmented habitats.
The mosaic of features found in rivers support
a diverse range of plants and animals. For example, riffles and
pools support aquatic plants and animals and exposed sediments
are important for a range of invertebrates. Marginal and bankside
vegetation support an array of wildflowers and animals.
Canals support a diverse range of wildlife,
both in the water and in the adjacent margins. These include water
plants, dragonflies, fish, amphibians, water voles, otters and
birds, like kingfishers. In England, there are 23 canal Sites
of Special Scientific Interest designated for their plants, with
a total length of 167 km, approximately 40 more SSSIs are associated
with the canal system. If left unmanaged canals will gradually
silt up and dry out. Some level of management is, therefore, essential
to maintain their wildlife interest as well as their navigability.
In general, the most diverse nature conservation
interests can be found in inland waterways where low levels of
boat traffic and periodic management occurs. With the continuing
threat to wetland habitats from agriculture and urbanisation,
inland waterways are becoming an increasingly important wildlife
Impact of the use of inland waterways on wildlife
Inland waterways are used for a variety of purposes
especially for leisure and tourism, such as boating, angling,
cycling and walking. They are still used in a more limited way
to transport coal and aggregates, and to distribute water. All
these activities can have a detrimental impact on the environment
if they are not sensitive to the needs of wildlife. Navigation
and boating can damage wildlife of inland waterways in the following
the passage of boats, powered and
unpowered, can cause an increase in boat wash damaging bankside
vegetation and disturbing riverside nesting and wintering birds.
For example, breeding populations of mute swan on the Warwickshire
Avon fell in those sections of the river subject to navigation.
RSPB studies of the River Great Ouse suggests that densities of
breeding birds were lower on the navigated lower Ouse, compared
to the unnavigated Ouse upstream of Bedford;
turbidity from propellers reduces
light for plant photosynthesis;
marinas and other development can
result in direct loss of habitats and in an increase disturbance
pollution can be caused by increased
influxes of polluted waters and direct discharges from boats;
dredging and weed control operations
and management of bankside vegetation can cause increased turbidity,
disturbance and a change in water levels; and
engineering works and operations
to facilitate navigation, eg weirs, locks, dredging, can alter
river hydrology and result in direct destruction of habitat.
The RSPB supports, in principle, the Government's
wish to encourage the transfer of freight from roads to water-borne
transport1 where this is practical, economic and environmentally
desirable. In terms of atmospheric emissions, shipping is one
of the cleanest forms of transport. However, there are other environmental
impacts which should also be considered, such as pollution, disturbance
and introduction of alien species.
A comparison of freight transport by water in
a selection of "developed" countries indicates that
whilst Great Britain transports up to 28 per cent of freight by
water, other countries such as USA, Japan and the Netherlands
transport more (35 per cent, 45 per cent and 58 per cent respectively).
We believe that there might be more potential in this area, particularly
for coastal shipping, but it will require greater Government support.
Short sea shipping (particularly coastal shipping)
could have a significant part to play in an integrated transport
strategy, providing a viable alternative to road freight transport.
However, this is unlikely to happen unless a more "level
playing field" is created. This will involve a number of
facets including carbon taxes on fuel, reform of the freight grant
facility and for the true costs of road transport to be reflected
in freight haulage costs.
Increased short sea shipping and a reduction
in environmental impacts might be facilitated with the more formal
development of a "hub port" system within Europe. In
particular the concentration of deep water facilities at just
a few locations could reduce the number of sites where there is
pressure to expand and thus reduce the environmental impact. In
addition, it might ensure that ports unable to cater for the larger
ships, retain an active role through servicing feeder ships. This
might help retain port related employment in areas which would
otherwise have lost it.
Any greater use of coastal and inland waterways
for transport must take full account of the potential environmental
impacts, and in particular the likely significant impacts of reopening
old waterways, both to freight and recreational traffic. It is
important that a full environmental appraisal is undertaken before
any schemes to increase freight transport on inland waterways
occur (see recommendation 2).
The inland waterway network has been built up
over several centuries. It is important to recognise that the
economic, social and hydrological pressures have changed enormously
over this time. Any proposed development scheme on an inland waterway
should take account of national and international policy imperatives,
such as international and national nature conservation obligations.
For example, parts of the inland waterway network have developed
as areas of high biodiversity value. This is because of good water
quality and physical stability. It is essential that this biodiversity
value is maintained, and where possible enhanced. The study below
illustrates where international conservation imperatives can conflict
Case study: Hickling Broad
Hickling Broad lies within a nationally and
internationally important area of nature conservation. It lies
within a National Nature Reserve and forms part of the Upper Thurne
Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest, which
is also a component of Broadland Special Protection Areas designated
under the EU Birds Directive, and the Broads candidate Special
Area of Conservation, under the Habitats Directive. Broadland
is also listed as a wetlands of international importance under
the Ramsar Convention. Hickling is the largest broad within the
executive area of the Broads Authority, and is a prime area for
sailing and recreational boating.
The Broads Authority, in close co-operation
with other partners, has been actively involved in the restoration
of the Broads, largely through the reduction of nutrients. On
Hickling Broad nutrient levels have fallen which led to the return
of aquatic plants in the early 1990's, including the rare intermediate
stonewort (a red listed species found only in this area in the
UK). This has, however, posed problems for sailing.
In 1994 and 1995 the Broads Authority, in consultation
with English Nature, undertook a small-scale, controlled, cutting
programme of plants to assist navigation. In 1998, there was a
switch on Hickling Broad to clear water conditions with a large
increase in intermediate stonewort. As a result, in 1999 the Broads
Authority, under pressure from the sailing interests reviewed
its management regime and proposed a larger scale cutting programme
to assist sailing beyond the navigation channel. English Nature
were concerned that this cutting would compromise the nature conservation
interest of the Broads and objected to the proposal until an appropriate
assessment was undertaken, as required under the Habitats Directive.
After consultation, it was agreed that the Broads Authority should
undertake a smaller scale cutting and monitoring programme to
assess the impact of cutting on the rare plants. In 2000 there
was a decline in intermediate stonework, and the water returned
to a turbid state, with no impediment to sailing. However, it
is likely that the system will return to a clear water state dominated
by stonewort once again and the unresolved conflict with sailing
will be rekindled.
This case highlights the difficulty the Broads
Authority faced in meeting its nature conservation duty, and its
responsibility to navigation and recreation. However, in this
case the requirements under the Habitats Directive should take
precedence. For other NNR's, the national park authority has a
nature conservation duty that takes precedence over it's other
duties. This is not the case for the Broads Authority.
On the parts of the inland waterway network
designated for its nature conservation interest, either national
or international, nature conservation should take precedence.
This will not necessarily preclude other uses, but each case must
be looked at on its merits.
The environmental consequences of developments
on inland waterways, including freight transport, water transfer
and regeneration, must be fully assessed at an early stage, with
all the consequences investigated.
A full environmental appraisal should be undertaken
before any development schemes occurs on inland waterways, this
should ensure that:
a scheme does not go ahead unless
it is clear that the net benefits in terms of other objectives
(including environmental objectives) clearly override the environmental
disbenefits, that there is no better option and that all reasonable
steps are taken to mitigate the impact;
alternatives to new construction
must be considered, including better use of existing infrastructure;
consideration should be given, at
an early stage, to delivering opportunities for environmental
enhancement as part of any propsal.
Water transfer has been identified by the Government
as a key area of future development for our canals (1). This is
not a new ideathe use of canals to transfer water from
the River Trent to the Thames was considered by the National Rivers
Authority in 1994. However, there is real concern about the impacts
of such transfers on the donor river, the receiving river and
on the canal itself. The box below illustrates some of the impacts
that need to be considered. In addition to environmental considerations,
there is question as to whether water transfer on the scale envisaged
is economically viable, as in some cases it may be necessary to
reverse the flow of water.
|Donor River||Increased abstraction reducing water levels or flow.
|Receiving River||Possible spread of alien species such as invasive plants.
| ||Changes in flow regime (to accommodate increased flow).
| ||Changes in water quality (eg acid to alkaline, temp diffeences).
|Canal||Change in water quality and flow affecting canal wildlife.
The environment and economic implications used to be fully
assessed before any proposal for the transfer of water around
the inland waterway network is considered. The RSPB does not support
the proposal for the development of a national water grid based
around the inland waterway network.
Responsibility for navigation is mainly split between British
Waterways, which has responsibility for the majority of navigations
on canals, and the Environment Agency, which has responsibility
for navigation on the majority of navigable rivers. The Broads
Authority is responsible for navigation in the Broads and a wide
range of other bodies has responsibility for the remaining quarter
of inland waterways.
There is a significant difference between the canal network,
essentially built for dedicated waterways use (although now supporting
other uses), and navigable rivers, where structures are being
constructed and managed for multiple benefits. Navigable rivers
are complex systems which require an integrated approach to their
management and operation. As well as being used for navigation,
such rivers are also used for domestic, agricultural and industrial
water supply, they receive effluent, support fisheries and nature
conservation interest and often have extensive systems of weirs,
locks and sluices to control flooding. These issues are inextricably
linked. The management of rivers for navigation can, therefore,
have an impact on management for flood defence, water resources,
water quality, fisheries, conservation and land use adjacent to
the rivers. Any change to the management of these rivers must
be assessed against its impacts, detrimental or otherwise, on
all these aspects. Navigation cannot be considered in isolation.
There are clear examples where the potential for conflict betwen
different interest exists, for example on the navigable sections
of the Rivers Nene and Ouse. It is, therefore, important that
any agency managing a semi-natural river system does so impartially,
in the overall public interest and in a transparent way. British
Waterways does not meet these criteria because of its single-function
operational responsibility for navigation. In instances where
interests could conflict, there would be a real danger that British
Waterways' internal bias would result in undue weight being given
The establishment of integrated river basin planning has
been a significant post war policy development. The Environment
Agency currently operates a system of integrated river management
through its Local Environment Agency Plans (LEAPs). These are
strategic plans based on river catchments. The Environment Agency
is able to ensure the proper integration of navigation into its
LEAPs for those navigable rivers it is responsible for. The Agency
is in the best position to make an appropriate judgement as to
where the balance lies between various interests. There are additional
benefits from the Agency maintaining responsibility for navigation
on rivers regarding efficiency and effectiveness of sharing operational
and technical resources, for example staff carrying out work which
fulfils both flood defence and navigation duties. With the implications
of climate change managing rivers is likely to become more, rather
than less, challenging.
The RSPB recommends that the Environment Agency maintains
its responsibility for navigation on rivers. This would ensure
that navigation operates within the system of integrated management,
with care for the environment as a central tenet.
The requirements of integrated management is a central component
of the EU Water Framework Directive. This Directive requires Member
States to prepare and implement integrated River Basin Management
Plans. Delivering integrated management on rivers where British
Waterways has navigation responsibility will be a difficult challenge.
Any change in operation of weirs, locks and sluices by British
Waterways to manage navigation could have significant knock-on
effects of other users of the rivers, such as farmers or industry
abstracting water, on flood control mechanism and on nature conservation
and fishery interests.
In the light of the Water Framework Directive the RSPB recommends
that navigation responsibility for all navigable rivers should
lie fully with the Environment Agency.
The RSPB has no strong preferences over who should manage
navigations on canals. Since British Waterways currently has the
responsibility for the majority of navigations on canals, it would
seem to be appropriate for BW to continue this role and perhaps
extend its responsibilities to all canals.
The Environment Agency, with its responsibility for delivering
integrated catchment management, must be able to ensure that the
management and operation of canals by any organisation is consistent
with the requirements of integrated catchment planning, with care
for the environment as a central tenet.
The wildlife of inland waterways is a major component of
their attraction to people. If we loose this wildlife value, we
lose the potential of inland waterways for recreation, tourism
and development. This has been recognised by British Waterways,
who state in their Environmental Code of Practice that "a
high quality water environment is an essential component of their
business". There is a clear responsibility on all who manage
our inland waterways to ensure they use their powers to maintain
this vital part of our heritage. The RSPB supports the proposal
in Waterways for Tomorrow that there should be protection,
conservation and enhancement of waterway wildlife.
The three main navigation authorities for inland waterwaysEnvironment
Agency, British Waterway and the Broads Authorityall have
clear conservation duties. Most of the remaining organisations,
of which there are many, have no statutory duty to further nature
With Government's international and national commitments
to biodiversity the RSPB recommends that all bodies with a responsibility
for navigation on inland waterways be given a duty to protect
and further nature conservation.
The RSPB is encouraged by the policies in the British Waterways
report "British Waterways and Biodiversity". We would
like to see the environmental practices of all navigation authorities
bought into line with minimum standards.
A statutory code of practice should be developed to act as
a standard for all navigation authorities, with specific reference
to protecting and furthering nature conservation and assisting
in the delivery of UK Biodiversity action Plan targets.
(1) DETR 2000 Waterways for Tomorrow.