The Wildlife of England's Canals

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Many narrowboats have been fitted with supercharged big block V8 engines and can reach speeds in excess of 300mph, like these examples drag racing through the Marple Lock Junction near Macclesfield. However, there are many quieter stretches of canal where wildlife can be observed.

England has one of the most extensive canal networks of any nation in the world, with several thousand miles of man-made waterways. While many of these have been abandoned and permitted to fall into a state rendering navigation impossible, most are still regularly plied by boats to this day - yet, as they are no longer in commercial use, they also provide tranquil havens for wildlife. In recent years, the canals have become an important source of revenue, increasingly popular among those who wish to travel but do not wish to be exposed to unsavoury foreign types and - worse - filthy foreign food, which has in turn been the cause of much improvement in waterside facilities and moorings. This has led to a rise in the numbers of people with an interest in plants and animals taking holidays on the canals rather than using them merely as a means of disposing of stolen bicycles and unwanted puppies.


Brunel photographed with Paddy O'Shaughnessy and Mick Connor, whom he would later appoint as foremen of the Irish workers he employed in order to create Britain's canal network.

British canals played a vital role during the nation's Industrial Revolution, prior to which transport in the country was limited to horse-drawn vehicles, walking and astral projection[1]. Recognising that boats would provide an effective means of moving goods from one part of the country to another, the system's inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunel proposed construction in 1776, several years before his birth, and within a single year more than a hundred miles of navigable waterways had been created. However, Brunel had greater dreams - he wanted a nationwide network that would connect all four corners of Britain. But how could he possibly achieve such a feat? Civic construction projects, in those days, relied entirely on manpower alone, for machines had not yet been invented. Then, he hit upon an idea - the Irish, a dwarfish race known to have gained world-class earth-moving skills in the Guinness mines of their Celtic island home, could be employed at little expense, and so he sent a boat to Ireland to gather some five thousand of them and ship them to England.

With their squat stature, bushy beards and iron helmets, the Irish must have been a strange sight as they walked down the gangplank onto the harbour at London Docks and people from miles around showed up to see the spectacle. However, Brunel's genius was soon made apparent to all, for the Irish lived up to their reputation and proved to be excellent, industrious diggers - by 1780, they had dug some 20,000 miles of canal, making Britain the first country with a nationwide canal network. For the first time people in all corners of the land were able to be supplied with vital necessities such as food, pornography and the latest video games. Being only a semi-domesticated species, many of the Irish escaped from the cages within which they were kept overnight and, finding the British countryside suited to their needs, turned feral; despite the widespread eradication programmes put into place during the 1920s and 30s, many parts of Britain are still home to large populations of the Irish, which have become known colloquially as Pikeys (see below).

  1. A method widely used to this day in Wales, where hallucinogenic Psilocybe mushrooms grow year-round and form an important part of the natives' diet

The Canals Today[edit]

The vast majority of the craft now found on Britain's canals are houseboats or leisure craft as canals are rarely used in any commercial sense today. Although this may seem a pity - and is the reason that many once-navigable stretches have fallen into disrepair, effectively making them no longer suitable for haulage - it has had the advantage that most canals are now at a much lesser risk of becoming polluted as a result of spillages of the often-hazardous materials carried by barges in times gone by and, as such, have become havens for the wide variety of plants and animals that now make their homes both in the water and along the towpaths.

That's why so many people with an interest in wildlife now choose to take holidays on the canals. Houseboats can be rented for as little as £250 per day[1] and the majority of boatyards will allow holiday-makers to roam as far as they wish. During the average voyage, the keen-eyed nature spotter can expect to see various fish, ducks, herons and any of the more exotic species listed below.

  1. Boats in this price range are especially suited to those with a keen interest in riverbeds, as the craft will almost certainly have sunk. Expect to pay three times as much for anything fit for even short habitation by humans.


  • Condom Tree

A unique species classified as part of the Carpinus genus[1] with unusual foliage composed partially of leaves and partially of latex sheathes, the Condom Tree is frequently found in or in close proximity to habitats supporting Common Dogger populations, with which it is believed by scientists to have formed an association.

During the winter months when Common Doggers are hibernating, the tree looks almost indistinguishable from any other broad-leafed species with its bare branches. However, as soon as the weather warms up it develops first buds, then leaves and before long the latex sheathes from with it takes its name begin to appear - though there may be just a few examples in late May, by early September the tree will be festooned with literally hundreds - if not thousands - of sheathes and the ground below may be soaked with the peculiar white sap that drips from them. This sap has a scent many dogs find irresistible and owners who regularly walk their animals along canal towpaths are advised to carry a good supply of tissues as the sight of a dog dripping with the sticky white substance has been known to draw the attention of passers-by who, concerned, may ask unwelcome and awkward questions.[2]

  1. Hornybeams, a broad-leafed genus known for the hardness of its wood.
  2. On the other hand, it's a fantastic excuse if you meet anyone right after you've had sex with your dog.

Land Plants[edit]

Wild Fruits photographed at a cottage in the car park of the Calder and Hebble Navigation Visitor's Centre, West Yorkshire.
  • Wild Fruit

When canals were in commercial use, many of those who worked on them lived in modest buildings along the banks. In recent years, especially in those areas where canals are found in close conjunction with water sports centres with car parks, these structures have been converted into public conveniences which to this day are still known as cottages. Many of these cottages would once have had gardens in which the inhabitants grew fruit and, when the canal network fell into disuse, the cottages became derelict but the fruit remained and often thrived. Cottages - especially those that remain open overnight - are still the best place to find wild fruit, though examples are sometimes encountered in the hedgerows too - however, they seem to have an aversion to bushes and are rarely seen anywhere near them,

  • Creeping Pervert

Easily overlooked as it creeps along the towpath, the Creeping Pervert seems a timid and retiring species if observed without its knowledge. However, those who stumble unaware upon one are in for a big surprise - secreting itself in bushy undergrowth next to the towpath, the Creeping Pervert lies in wait for passers-by and, when it hears one within range, suddenly leaps from its hiding place, throws open its dirty coat and reveals its genitalia to the shocked victim before running away. Creeping Perverts may also be observed as they furtively gather the latex fruits of the Condom Tree or, equipped with cameras, hide in bushes around known Common Dogger colonies - though they are superficially similar in appearance and habits to the latter species, they are not known to interbreed and the mating habits of the Creeping Pervert remain unknown; partially as a result of it being a highly secretive and solitary species and partly because very few naturalists have been keen on finding out.

The Lesser Creeping Pervert, a similar species which does not exhibit the Creeping Pervert's unusual genital-exposing behaviour, was in years gone by a very common sight along Britain's canal network as it foraged among undergrowth and car park litter bins in search of discarded pornographic magazines which would be retrieved and taken home to line the nest (in most cases, the nest would be a damp and grotty bedsit with newspaper glued to the windows in order to preserve some degree of privacy as Lesser Creeping Perverts have not evolved the ability to purchase or hang curtains). In recent years, as the availability of Internet porn has dramatically decreased sales of printed pornography, the Lesser Creeping Pervert has been observed in the wild far less frequently - though it is not yet known if this represents an actual population decline caused by lack of discarded magazines or if it simply indicates that the Lesser Creeping Pervert is now online and very rarely leaves the bedsit these days.

Aquatic Plants[edit]

  • The Drowning Pansy

Known to scientists as Snivellius littleshitii, the Drowning Pansy is an unusual plant that closely resembles a young boy. It also has an unusual life-cycle, spending part of each day as a land-based species and part in the water. Walk along the towpath early on any Saturday morning to see Drowning Pansies on land and take note of its vibrant colours and the peculiar stem that grows out across the water, looking almost indistinguishable from a brand new, shiny fishing rod. It will remain in this position for several hours until, in the late morning or early afternoon, it releases pheromones that attract the attentions of any flocks of Chav Fishers that may be in the area. The Chav Fishers, with their distinctive "Oi look - there's that little gayboy what's in Miss Murthar's maffs class - let's kick 'is 'ead in!" will fall upon the Pansy, roughly pushing it to the ground and finally throwing it into the canal. If the Pansy's rod-like stem is a particularly fine example they may keep it, but in most cases it will be thrown into the water along with the Pansy.

Precisely what evolutionary advantages this strange behaviour offers to either species remains unknown to naturalists, but as the same events are played out on the banks of every canal throughout the land on each and every Saturday so it appears to be evidence of some form of complex symbiotic relationship. Some people have attempted to disrupt the cycle by intervening, but it is best to bear in mind the complex ways of the wild and allow Nature to take its course undisturbed[1].

  1. Especially if you don't want to end up soaking wet and bruised, too.

Land Animals[edit]

  • Pikeys

Large colonies of these quarrelsome animals, the direct descendants of the Irish brought to Britain by Brunel in the early days of canal construction, can be found living in car parks and lanes near many canals. As Pikeys are a migratory species which spends only a short time in any one area prior to moving on to a new habitat, there has been no evolutionary reason for them to develop habits or behaviour that will keep the colony clean - thus, Pikey colonies soon turn into stinking pits of filth, decay and stolen cars. Despite this and the Pikey's stained, unkempt appearance, close examination of a Pikey's mobile shelter will reveal that they decorate the interior with expensive (stolen) china, very large (stolen) televisions, an extensive collection of (stolen) silverware and gold jewelry (also stolen - unless it came from Argos; even Pikeys will happily pay those prices). It is wise to take great care and ensure that the shelter is uninhabited before one takes a closer look, however, as Pikeys are known to defend their home with their razor-like teeth, deadly claws, (stolen) baseball bats and (stolen and unlicensed) shotguns.

Though typically a solitary species, Hooded Muggers will sometimes form herds which are best avoided. Chav Fishers look very similar.
  • The Chav Fisher

Although Chav Fishers are frequently seen fishing in flocks numbering ten or more individuals, they live on a diet consisting almost entirely of KFC, hamburgers, lager and cheap drugs; rarely eating fish in any form except for an occasional Fillet of Fish from McDonald's if the restaurant has run out of Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets. Precisely why they fish is, therefore, a mystery; but anyone who has heard the whoops of joy emitted by them should one of their number successfully catch anything (rather than chlamydia, for a change) cannot be in any doubt that they derive a great deal of enjoyment from the activity. Capture is, however, a far less enjoyable experience for the fish than for the Chav that catches it - unlike most other fishing species, Fishing Chavs do not take great care to avoid inflicting pain upon their prey and instead will cause it extensive and frequently fatal harm while clumsily attempting to remove the hook from its mouth. Once this has been successfully accomplished, the fish will usually be stamped on. Whether this is less or more pointless than catching a fish and then returning it to the water remains a point of much debate.

Common Doggers photographed with an image-intensifying night vision camera near the Bristol and Avon Canal. Watch out for stinging nettles, people - and I'd keep a careful eye on where that spider's going, too.
  • The Hooded Mugger

Hooded Muggers tend to be found lurking underneath bridges over canals and can most often be seen during the early evening. Generally small in stature, it is nevertheless a dangerous creature as it packs both a bread knife, usually stolen from its mum's house, and a spiraling heroin addiction that leads it to fearlessly take on creatures many times its own size, including humans.

  • The Common Dogger

If, during a walk along the towpath or from the excellent viewpoint offered by a boat, one spots a Condom Tree (see above) then one can be certain that one has discovered an area populated by Common Doggers. This unusual creature is generally of drab plumage and may pass unnoticed during daylight, but by night they congregate in secluded areas - often close to the old cottages inhabited by Wild Fruit - where they mate. Numbers appear to have increased in recent years, perhaps as a result of developments in the manufacture of fleece garments and other warm clothing, and if one constructs a hide among the surrounding trees and equips oneself with night vision goggles it is not uncommon to observe as many as twenty or thirty Common Doggers gather and perform their strange mating rituals. Once found only in Britain, over the last decade Common Doggers have also been recorded in the USA, Australia and - unsurprisingly - the Netherlands.

Aquatic Animals[edit]

A typical River Squirrel - one of the most popular of all British wild animals.
  • River Squirrel

River Squirrels, one of the most popular of all the animals to be seen along England's waterways due to their cute and furry appearance and playful behaviour, are capable of growing to an enormous size. Dead specimens can often be seen floating in water near lock gates and around sewage outflows. 75cm, not including the rope-like tail, is an average length and during summer when food is plentiful individuals may achieve weights in excess of 25kg. Scientists believe that Giant Dead Rats, at least prior to death, survive by eating pretty much whatever they feel like[1].

  • River Gypsies also known as Boat Hippies

River Gypsies closely resemble the Crusty New Age Travellers that filled the outraged pages of the Daily Mail just a few summers ago and to whom they are closely related - in fact, they even have similar multicoloured sweaty dreadlocks and an assortment of piercings. They can be distinguished, however, by the large cork ball attached to their keys[2] which can usually be seen hanging from one torn pocket of their greasy combat trousers, a device that serves to prevent the keys from sinking and getting lost in the deep canal bottom mud if carelessly dropped following three or four gallons of the rough cider which forms the greater part of the species' diet.

For many years, naturalists puzzled over how it was that River Gypsies, who - if one takes into account the tattered clothing and often rather unsanitary living conditions - are evidently a creature with limited resources, are able to afford to live on traditional narrowboats since even the smaller examples cost around £50,000. After much in-depth research, it was discovered that the species has evolved from the Middle Class Guardianista, an animal that promises its offspring expensive gifts when it graduates from Oxbridge: whereas most offspring request an all-expenses-paid six months in India or Nepal (from which they return 20kg lighter yet full of shit), some - usually those who plan to spend the rest of their lives smoking marijuana instead of running the country - request a narrowboat. It is these individuals that evolve into River Gypsies. They also supplement their income - usually made by selling poorly-reconditioned bicycles dredged from the canal or diesel-scented cannabis resin smuggled across the North Sea in the fuel tank of a Dutch barge belonging to a newly-graduated acquaintance - with a weekly allowance of £65.30 provided by the Government; a sum which, thanks to their parent's bleeding heart liberal friends on local councils, they are entitled to as an indigenous British tribal culture due to having existed here since time immemorial (at least 1987).

  1. Including industrial pollutants following accidental discharge into watercourses, kayaks, dogs and so on.
  2. River Gypsies, like other species of New Age Traveller, need to ensure the vehicle in which they make their home can be secured because their comrades, being the type of people who have made a conscious decision to reject materialistic greed and instead create an egalitarian, anarcho-tribal society of their own (maaan) in which everyone shares their belongings and looks out for one another, will think nothing of climbing on board and stealing anything that could concievably be sold to get money for drugs.
Mrs. Hattie Beswick has swum in Gloucester's Lydney Canal every day from 7-9am since 1917. As you can image, all that healthy exercise has kept her body looking like that of an 18-year-old female gymnast - disappointingly, Britain's draconian anti-obscenity laws dictate that we can't let you see in her full, naked glory. Sorry.
  • Mad Swimming Granny

Mad Swimming Grannies, though rare, are easily spotted as almost all towns of any size are home to one. They can be spotted each morning as they make their way towards the canal, usually dressed in a combination of ill-fitting and mismatched second-hand clothing and carrying a plastic bag containing a loaf of bread from which the Granny will periodically tear large lumps for immediate consumption. Upon reaching the water, it will - often causing some surprise among onlookers - strip out of its outer clothing, revealing the greyish, wrinkled, naked flesh beneath and then hide both bread and clothing among canalside plants before lowering itself arthritically into the water. This can be observed on each and every morning of the year, even when the temperature is -10C and there are small icebergs floating downstream.

Cumbersome and ungainly on land, once immersed the Mad Swimming Granny becomes a powerful, graceful creature that may swim from one bank to the opposite several times, often clocking up a total distance of more than a mile. Capable of limited speech, when asked it may volunteer the information that it has done this every day since 1924 and swam for its country in the Olympics held in Paris that year. If you are very lucky, you may even observe a Mad Swimming Granny as it hunts, submerging itself for some minutes before returning to the surface with a large fish held tightly in its jaws. Despite many years of research, scientists have been unable to prove the existence of Mad Swimming Grandads, the Granny's male counterpart - though it is assumed that they have a mysterious mate known as a Fancy Man with whom they meet each afternoon for a pint or two.

See Also[edit]


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