John Bailey: Are estate lakes Norfolk's paradise lost?

Estate lake angling picture

Can there be any more beautiful places to fish than on an 18th Century estate lake? - Credit: John Bailey

I’ve written before that as a kid, it was the estate lakes of North Norfolk that stamped me an angler for life.  

I can’t swear that at seven or eight I got the beauty of them but in fact I think I did and my diaries are full of notes on trees, wildlife and fish that I generally failed to catch. If you think about it, those lakes almost link hands and form a water wonderland from Holkham in the west to Gunton park in the east and I can reel off a score of them at least that are the stuff of angling dreams. Or should be. I know I have lamented the decline of most of them and it’s pertinent to remember that once lost, lakes rarely come back.  

Whilst our estate lakes are surely the most beautiful of our venues here in the east, they have always been hard work to create and to sustain. I’ve mentioned Holkham. I wish I could remember the exact figures but thousands of men spent a decade digging that awe inspiring lake that we could enjoy for centuries.  

Holkham is in good shape but many are not and silting is a creeping danger to them all. In Oxfordshire, the mighty Blenheim Lake is undergoing a major overhaul with the detritus of years being removed at enormous cost.  

It will be worth it, every last bucket full. Something similar has taken place at the mouth-watering Burghley lake, just outside Stamford. The forward-thinking management there decided the choice was to dredge it or lose it and the money was there to do the right thing for generations to come. National treasures just can’t be allowed to sink into nothingness, surely? 

From our angling point of view, I must talk about fish stocks. Several of our Norfolk waters held sumptuous stocks of grand old English rudd, gold flanked as nuggets, red finned as flames. It’s a sad fact that most of the populations have withered after going out in a blaze of glory in the latter part of last century.  

The ancient, near indigenous stocks of fully scaled common carp that once proliferated haven’t done well either and Holkham remains as perhaps one of their last couple of strongholds. Tench? I spoke to a man who knows and he reckoned they are down 50 percent on pre 1990 levels and perch have fared worse than that.  

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We all know one of the root causes here so I’ll be brief. Silting. Insidious pollution. Predation...otters eating big fish and cormorants eating smaller fish that are prevented from coming through to maintain healthy populations. 

It’s a hideous cocktail all right and is in part inspiring the big spat in angling at the moment. The Barbel Society has just initiated a petition to remove otters from the protected species list and is hoping to attract enough signatures to have the issue debated in Parliament. 

In response, our governing body, the Angling Trust has waded in with disgust. There has been little love lost between the two groups for a good while but the otter has brought hostilities to the boil. As a serious, thinking angler, do you sign the petition and join the Barbel Society, which is acting for all species in fact? Or do you follow the arguments of the Angling Trust and keep your pen firmly in your pocket.  

It’s a toughie. I admire the energy of the Barbel Society, their positivity and their determination not just to talk but to get things done. There’s no doubt that otters don’t help our fish populations, especially in small, shallow estate lakes where they are sitting ducks.  

But then again, the Trust has contacted several MPs who say the petition stands no chance of attracting more than two or three supporters at Westminster and that all it will do is damage our sport’s reputation with the general public.  

That’s a good point but I despair at the woke culture of the modern day and the tyranny that the so-called right thinking few impose on the rest of us. Otters do immense harm to waterfowl and mammals and that’s a fact ignored by the vast majority who know very little about the countryside but have a lot to say about it.  

There’s also the argument that otters have been with us for millennia and the fish stocks of the past managed to survive. I like this. If you read Izaak Walton and his Complete Angler, you’ll see he hates otters with a vengeance that surely makes him an early, 16th Century member of the Barbel Society! And yet, at the same time, he writes about rivers and lakes teeming with fish. Roach are so prolific, he says, you could catch them by the bucket and so gullible, he called them river sheep. So, despite Izaak’s old river Lea popping with otters, it also was hopping with roach and I like that balance. 

Isn’t this the key? Let’s say a small estate lake holds a thousand good rudd and otters eat a hundred over the years, it is no great calamity. But if that lake holds 20 rudd and the otters snaffle ten, then great damage has been done. Barbel? If there were a thousand barbel between Lenwade and Norwich and 30 get eaten each year, so what? What makes the Barbel Society’s petition so appealing to some is because of the fact there are nowhere near enough fish for the otters and for us.  

Somehow we have to find the will to come together and sort our waters out and then decide on productive stocking policies. That way, there would be enough fish for everybody and the squabbling would stop.  

I do have a cunning plan that might help us here in Norfolk. I can’t say much yet for legal reasons but when everything is ready to go, you all will be the very first to know!