Conservation of the environment around the canals is as crucial to the future of British Waterways as the preservation of the infrastructure heritage. The trees, water plants, birds and animals which have made their homes along the banks give the waterways their unique atmosphere.
'In the past,' says head of environmental scientific services Roger Hanbury, 'we weren't doing enough in terms of development to put the environment of the waterways at risk. But as we become more successful with refurbishment and regeneration we have to be careful to preserve what we have.'
He and his team have produced an environmental code of practice to guide everyone working on the waterways. 'It affects everything we do' he says ' from mowing grass to heritage repairs. We all have to think how what we are doing could enhance or damage the environment.' Allied to this is one of the first biodiversity action plans to be prepared in the UK. 'We are identifiying the key natural environmental attributes of the waterways and setting priorities for wildlife and plant management; setting out what types of habitat we want to see, what balance we want to achieve.'
There will be some difficult issues to address in the future, he says. As restoration work opens up more and more of the waterways to the public, decisions will have to be taken as to whether some areas containing rare animals and plants should have restricted access; or whether sections of canal need limits on the numbers of boats on them at any one time, again for the sake of mammals and waterplants.
'We have a statutory and moral responsibility to make sure we leave things better than when we found them,' Hanbury says.