Kingfishers return to British waterways as the great canal clean-up bears fruit

A A A

It is being called the kingfisher factor, and is a striking indication of how things have changed on Britain's canal network. On waterways which a generation ago were clogged with grime and pollution, a massive clean-up has taken place. And, with wildlife flourishing as never before, Britain's most strikingly beautiful bird – the kingfisher – is making a comeback.

But they are not only becoming increasingly common on rural canals. With their spectacular cobalt-blue and chestnut plumage, kingfishers can be seen on the Regent's Canal at Islington in north London, and in cities such as Leeds and Manchester. The birds are often spotted, for example, near the British Waterways offices at Fearns Wharf on the Aire and Calder Navigation – just two minutes' walk from Leeds city centre. This summer, despite the wet weather, 300 kingfisher sightings were recorded by the public during British Waterways' fourth National Waterway Wildlife Survey. The study, which had a special focus on the bird, indicated healthy populations in many places on the 2,200-mile canal network.

It is a far cry from as recently as 20 years ago, when many canals, especially urban ones, were in effective foul-smelling dumping grounds covered in scum. The poet Philip Larkin, witnessing the typical sights of England from a train, wrote in The Whitsun Weddings in 1964 of "canals with floatings of industrial froth". But money has been poured into regeneration and the water-borne motorways of the Industrial Revolution have been revived as valued amenities.

The presence of a canal nearby can add 25 per cent to the value of a house, for example, and their importance for wildlife is increasingly being recognised, especially as "corridors" that different species can move along. The presence of wildlife, in turn, proves that a canal is healthy.

"We are delighted to hear of so many sightings of kingfishers on our waterways," said Mark Robinson, the national ecology manager at British Waterways. "As well as being a strikingly beautiful bird, kingfishers are an important indicator of the general health of the waterway ecosystem. Like the big cats on the African plains, kingfishers are at the top of the waterway food chain. They need fish to feed on, and fish need small invertebrates, and so on.

"Good populations of kingfishers, even in urban areas, show the important role that waterways have in greening our towns and cities by providing wildlife corridors which help to sustain populations of a variety of both common and endangered species including bats, water voles and otters."

As a direct result of the poll findings, several schemes to improve kingfisher habitats are planned, including the installation of boxes, posts and tunnels at the Regent's Canal, the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal and the Grand Union Canal at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.

More than 4,000 bird sightings were recorded during the survey. The kingfisher was the fourth most-common species spotted, behind the mallard, mute swan and grey heron. There were also plenty of sightings of some of Britain's rarer species, including water voles, otters and bats. Other, more unexpected animals which were reported were seals and an alligator snapping turtle – the largest freshwater turtle in North America.

The survey shows that the warm autumn which followed the wet summer has caused confusion in the animal kingdom. Common darter dragonflies, which have normally disappeared by this time of year, are still about, while two unusual southern insects – the saw fly and a grizzled skipper butterfly – have been seen in the Midlands for the first time.

There has, however, been no repeat of the alleged sighting of a crocodile in the Stroudwater canal in Gloucestershire two years ago. "We investigated this, and it was probably a large pike," Mr Robinson said. "At least we think it was. We haven't had any records since, and as far as we know, we haven't lost any dog-walkers."

The species discovered

Mallard (431 sightings)

Mute swan (382)

Grey heron (366)

Kingfisher (314)

Coot (272)

Moorhen (256)

Bumblebee (215)

Dragonfly (192)

Damsel fly (148)

Cormorant (130)

Bat (128)

Frog (128)

Mink (106)

Fox (92)

Grass snake (89)

Water vole (71)

Toad (59)

Terrapin (49)

Otter (29)

Grebe (27)

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick