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John Bailey: Times like this make you laugh ... or cry

PUBLISHED: 17:34 14 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:34 14 April 2020

A large, dead ottered roach found on my Easter Saturday walk Picture: John Bailey

A large, dead ottered roach found on my Easter Saturday walk Picture: John Bailey

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Always cast on the bright side of life – I use these words with a very deep breath and a hard scratching of my head.

A Peter Solly painting of the wonderful Wensum where Phil and I watched those roach Picture: John BaileyA Peter Solly painting of the wonderful Wensum where Phil and I watched those roach Picture: John Bailey

It reveals some of what I have been doing this lockdown, reacquainting myself with some great comedic moments from Basil Fawlty to The Life of Brian.

It also highlights how I would like to think, behave and even write. In these difficult days, we don’t want gloom and doom but oodles of light shafting down the tunnel. But it is hard to see our sport’s future in deep, unalloyed shades of rose.

If you are a fly angler, you might well have heard of Fishing Breaks, a company offering superb game fishing, largely in the south. It is run by one of angling’s great modern day thinkers, Simon Cooper and no doubt he acquired his wisdom when he was a student at the UEA. His frequent newsletters tell angling like it is and last week Simon demolished hopes of a brave new world after Covid-19. It is tempting to think that when we get on the banks again, they will be untrodden and that the fish will have forgotten all about us in an orgy of rod bending and reel screaming. If only.

Simon suggests that in the wake of coronavirus, and after our break from the EU let’s not forget, there might well be pressure on farmers to produce yet more food, just as there was after the second war. This would mean more flood plain going under the plough, more pesticides, more abstraction and possibly even the return of the damnable dredger. Few of us expect anything but hard financial times ahead of us, and Simon points out the water companies would love any excuse not to invest in sewage, reservoir capacity and the future of the UK’s pure water supply. He suggests that the Environment Agency is already a toothless organisation and that probable budget cuts will enfeeble them further when it comes to protecting our fisheries.

Simon laments that we like to think ourselves more environmentally friendly than countries elsewhere, but we are not. We are told repeatedly about the crash in our wildflower meadows but less well documented is the unparalleled destruction of ancient woodland that we have seen here, in England notably. He brought to light the breaking news that Welsh farmers are being allowed to spread waste milk on the land. This might sound benign but it is not. If milk gets into a river it can have annihilating results, as I once witnessed as a child on a canal in the north west. As ever, the balance sheet is preferred to the environment, something a period of economic hardship is unlikely to remedy.

Even removing anglers from their waters, Simon suggests, leaves a void other interests flock to fill. On the sunny Saturday just gone, I took my government permitted exercise walking my beloved Wensum valley river and pits and what a glorious sight the springtime was there. Pity I was the only one there to admire it, apart from otters and cormorants, both hunting as bold as brass in the deserted landscape. In the south, on Simon’s patch, things, if possible, are far worse. River keepers are reporting a huge surge in the amount of poaching on an industrial scale. These are not old country boys after a mess of trout for their supper, but armed gangs of up to 15 at a time, attacking anybody who tries to stop them. It would seem that lower levels of countryside activity are creating a void for the lawless to fill. Or just the ignorant, come to that.

On that walk, we got as far from any road as you could possibly reach or even imagine. There was no traffic noise, nothing but the sigh of a breeze in the majestic willow, the distant cacophony of a rookery and the slight murmur of the river speeding over a run of gravel. Amidst all this beauty, someone had taken the trouble to bring three cans of lager and leave them, emptied and crushed, on the grass. Who on God’s earth would do that? Who would make the effort to trail three miles into Paradise and then trash it? Heart stopping beauty one minute. Heart breaking vandalism the next.

Believe me, I would love to report nothing but great things occurring and if I can’t do that, it is only because I so adore our wonderful, precious Norfolk countryside and weep to see it abused. Last week I wrote about the Wensum Anglers’ Conservation Association publishing their members’ stories as a much-needed boost to spirits. I tried to do my bit with an inadequate offering entitled Always My Enchanted Valley. I tried to explain that I often sound like an old sourpuss only because my passion for the river is so deep and my pain is so great. However, and this is the point of this whole piece really, I did end with mention of a miracle. Three years ago, one autumn evening, I walked one of the once legendary huge roach stretches with great friend Phil Humm. No roach had been caught there, as far as we knew, since perhaps 1987 yet as the sun painted the Wensum with gold, clonking, massive roach began to roll. These were belters, roach as huge as those of the Great Days and they definitely were not chub. Phil actually read and edited my piece as well as backing me up in a postscript. There was no poetic licence, he said. He agreed we could barely believe what we were witnessing.

Yes, this was an angler’s Holy Grail moment and it shows, surely, that whilst you might fight for Mother Nature, you never, ever write her off. Oh, and it reminds me too that I have another Python film to catch up upon this evening.


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