Is rising tide of canoeists a threat to our rivers?

Family canoeing. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Canoeing is booming, with even more paddlers expected to take to the water this summer. But could they be harming our rivers? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

More and more people will be taking to our waterways for their fresh air fix as lockdown lifts. But there are fears that will put fragile habitats more at risk from careless canoeists.

Paddlers are demanding access to all navigable rivers, claiming they already have a common law right to.

British Canoeing, the sport's umbrella body, says just 1,400 of England's 42,700 miles of waterways currently offer "uncontested" access to its 35,000 members.

It says: "Open access for all would enable more people to have access to England’s network of waterways without the threat of challenge; for health and well-being, for enjoyment and, critically, to play an active part in protecting the environment.

For many, fishing comes first

Canoeists have "uncontested" access to just 4pc of waterways - Credit: John Bailey

"The majority of the canoeing community are very environmentally aware. For many, enjoyment of the environment and wildlife is the primary reason for taking to the water, and as such they are keen to protect it. Where there is evidence that damage or disturbance would occur to our native wildlife, for example spawning fish and nesting birds, British Canoeing would endorse temporary measures on specific waters.

"It is up to us all to set an example of how we want to see our rivers fairly, shared by all users. Consider your actions when out paddling, be sensitive to other users, always consider the impact you are having on the environment, aim to minimise disturbance and leave no trace."

But anglers fear unrestricted access would damage fragile aquatic habitats - particularly the upper reaches of Norfolk's chalk streams - at a time when numbers of canoeists are increasing. 

Fifty years on, John Bailey still fishing his Wensum

John Bailey fishes a tree-lined glide on the Wensum - Credit: John Bailey

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Norfolk-based conservationist and angling writer John Bailey said: "We have had a huge increase since Covid. We have seen a huge increase in people trying to enjoy the UK countryside because 20m people used to go abroad every year and now they can't.

"The whole crux of the matter if we look at East Anglian rivers is that the upper reaches are too small in terms of width and depth for canoes to go down them. There just isn't the water to go down them without causing immense ecological damage.

"The damage it does to fish spawn, to weed growth, to insect life is over the top damage.

"People would not go to Blakeney Point and play football in the middle of a tern colony but rivers are so little understood that people going out to enjoy the countryside are not aware of the damage they're causing."

Wild, spawning roach need to be protected

Roach spawning over weedy shallows - Credit: John Bailey

Mr Bailey said while the lower reaches of many rivers and the Broads could accommodate canoes without risk of damage, he had been horrified to see the impact caused by people paddling around Lyng and Lenwade.

Wild brown trout are battling to survive in the upper reaches of the Wensum and the Bure. They spawn on shallow gravel beds, which can be damaged by disturbance from canoes, along with weed like surface-flowering water crowfoot, which is in decline.

Numbers taking to the water have boomed in recent years, with canoe and paddleboard hire businesses opening up across the region.

Mark Wilkinson, aka The Canoeman, runs the biggest in the country, with 160 craft based at Wroxham, Beccles, Buxton and Norwich.

EDP and Evening News Original, The Canoe Man Mark Wilkinson.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Mark Wilkinson, who runs the biggest canoe hire business n the country on Norfolk's rivers - Credit: Simon Finlay

"To be honest with you it doesn't have a great effect in our part of the world," he said. "A lot of the issue is the spawning gravel beds on the Wensum, but the Wensum is rarely paddled because of  the access and the people around it make it hard.

"On the Bure, the water levels vary rarely change so it's very rare we have that low water that paddling is going to interfere with the gravel beds.

"There are one or two pinch points, like Buxton Mill Pool, but it's not paddlers that are the issue. It's more a case of all the kids going swimming jumping in and out."

One thing both sides agree on is that numbers taking to the water are on the increase.

"We're seeing it already," said Mr Wilkinson. "Just yesterday I saw 10 times the number of private boats I would have seen two years ago, canoes, stand up paddleboards."