Staff blog: The Crinan Canal – A Wildlife Haven

Our Community Engagement Officer Claire discovers the beautiful landscapes and fantastic wildlife to be found along the Crinan Canal.

This weekend I took my first trip north to the Crinan canal, to explore this beautiful waterway and get inspired ahead of a programme of school workshops and public events I will be involved with throughout 2018.  First opened back in 1801, the canal transfers well over 1000 boats each year, allowing sailors to significantly reduce their travel time by crossing the Argyll peninsula, avoiding the much longer journey around the Mull of Kintyre.  After my visit I can definitely agree that the canal earns its unofficial title as the most beautiful shortcut in Britain!

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The Crinan Canal at Cairnbaan

Throughout the summer months the canal is lined with a fantastic variety of wildflowers, including scarcer species such as butterfly orchids.  Although the bright petals have now mostly faded, apart from a few late-flowering species such as devil’s bit scabious, the Crinan wildflowers still have an important role to play.  Walking along the towpath, I encountered several flocks – collectively known as “charms” – of goldfinches, feeding as they perched on swaying stalks of knapweed.  The seeds of many wildflower species will prove an important source of food for birds over the autumn and winter months.

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Common carder bumblebee on devil’s bit scabious

I didn’t need to stray from the path to see some really exciting wildlife along the canal.  During my walk along the Crinan, I spotted some interesting caterpillars as they crossed from one side of the towpath to the other.  The hairy reddish-brown ruby tiger caterpillars were surprisingly speedy as they crossed the gravel surface, and I also spotted some buff-tip caterpillars, which with their black and yellow colouration warn predators not to risk having them as a snack.

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Ruby tiger moth caterpillar                                                                                Buff tip moth caterpillar

As the sun broke through and bathed the canal in warm light, I was lucky to see a spectacular male southern hawker dragonfly hunting flies above the path, and was thrilled to capture some pictures of another which posed on vegetation beside the water’s edge.

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Male southern hawker enjoying the autumn sunshine

Approaching Crinan village along the canal, you see the sweeping expanse of the Moine Mhor nature reserve to your right.  This ancient bog habitat is home to a huge array of wildlife, and the River Add estuary provides feeding grounds for a range of birds.  The handily located bird hide on the Crinan towpath, cared for by the local Argyll Bird Club, is the perfect place to spot some of the ducks and wading birds out on the water and surrounding mud flats.  Species including curlew, oystercatcher, little grebe, red-breasted merganser and grey heron were all visible from the hide, so I was glad I’d brought my binoculars along!

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Bellanoch swing-bridge

All in all, my search for inspiration along the Crinan was definitely successful.  The peaceful setting, beautiful landscape and plethora of wildlife surrounding the canal made for a fantastic day exploring the waterway.  The canals are such a fantastic resource, and I’m looking forward to returning soon to help showcase the wildlife of the Crinan to a wider audience, whether local school children or visitors from far and wide!

If you are a local school or community group interested in getting involved in wildlife activities along the Crinan canal, please contact claire@scottishwaterwaystrust.org.uk.