British Waterways, the body that runs the canals, wants them to be seen and cherished as a rich wildlife resource as much as a facility for transport and pleasure boating. And it believes young people are ideal for collecting the information that can underpin an extensive environmental database.
The project is symptomatic of a radical new approach to the 200-year- old canal network, which for many years languished as British transport's forgotten arm, slowly falling into decay.
The Labour Government has injected new money, and more importantly, new belief into the canal system, as something of enormous potential value to the whole community - for its history, archaeology, wildlife and recreational potential - rather than just to boating enthusiasts.
British Waterways has responded enthusiastically, and is turning itself from a mere navigation authority into what has been termed "the National Trust for Canals", managing and promoting all aspects of their worth, and constantly pointing out that half the country's population lives within five miles of one.
It is presiding over a giant restoration programme which is currently seeing disused canals restored at nearly 100 miles a year - the same rate at which they were built during the years of "canal mania" from 1790 to 1830, when they were cut as the motorways of the industrial revolution.
Its wildlife survey is a recognition that the network may be long and thin, but it supports a wealth of biodiversity in a remarkable array of habitats - dragonflies and a huge variety of other insects, a profusion of aquatic plants, rich bird life and many fish species, as well as exotic introductions such as terrapins - all of which should be actively conserved.
The imaginative idea of doing the survey with schoolchildren (lots of them available everywhere, and virtually cost-free) rather than just professional ecologists (only a few available, and salaried) is doubly worthwhile, British Waterways thinks.
First, it actively engages local young people with their canals, and is designed to be widely used as a teaching tool. But, second, as long as it is properly framed, it can produce data of real scientific worth.
Earlier, simpler surveys by schoolchildren produced valuable data on water voles, which are now Britain's most threatened mammals, their populations having been decimated by wild mink. Some stretches of canals are among their remaining strongholds.
The new survey, entitled the Waterways Challenge, is currently being piloted in several schools in different parts of the country. It consists of a series of questionnaires which get children to record all natural and man-made features, from hedges and fields to locks and bridges, and then goes into a much greater focus on individual species of trees, flowers, mosses and lichens, insects and birds. Great emphasis is placed on safety throughout.
British Waterways hopes to use it to acquire baseline environmental data for all canals, which will feed into a biodiversity action plan for the entire network, currently being planned.
This week, children from Stoke Bruerne Primary School, in Northamptonshire, were trying out the survey on their local section of the Grand Union canal. "I think it's a great idea," said their headteacher, Terry Mortimer. "It feeds directly into the national curriculum in a number of ways. It covers a lot of the science work and the geography work."
Caroline Tandy, a British Waterways ecologist, said: "What's interesting about canals is that you have so many different habitats crammed into a narrow cross-section.
"You start with a hedgerow, and the vegetation at its base is the vegetation of the woodland edge," she said. "hen you have the long and short vegetation on the towpath, then the water-edge plants that like damp environments, then the plants that like water itself, and then submerged and floating vegetation. And the opposite bank usually has a different management regime to the towpath itself. Packed into a narrow ribbon of land is a microcosm of all lowland habitat."Reuse content