John Bailey: A week of travel and water weed

Fishing or kayaking

For many, fishing comes first - Credit: John Bailey

By complete coincidence, I received two emails this week about the decline of that most special of water weeds, river ranunculus.

Both my correspondents shared all our sadness that those lush, green carpets of rippling vegetation, topped with exquisite cream and yellow flowers, seem to be an ever more rare sight on the shallows of our rivers. They both quoted the various deeply scientific studies that have been carried out into this decline and asked my humble opinion as to what can be done. Don’t ask me, I thought, ask the totally brilliant Tim Aldiss.

Tim is the sort of custodian all our rivers need every mile of their length. He watches rivers, he understands rivers and when he saw the ranunculus along his stretch of Norfolk river in trouble, he did something about it. He identified two living room-sized areas of this life-giving weed that still had roots and promise of a future and fenced them in with chicken wire and iron stakes. Nothing fancy, you see, just a sensible means of protection. The big question is protection from what.

Simple. Canoes and swans. Canoe traffic has exploded on our upper rivers these last three years and the simple fact is that the shallows are just too shallow to cope with big blokes in badly-navigated boats that grind their way downstream, bulldozing everything in their wake, ranunculus included.

I’ve written about this before but spring is here and the problem is about to rear its ugly paddle with a vengeance this staycation year. And if it's not humans tossing our gravel beds to Kingdom come, it is the vastly-increased number of swans helping them to complete the job. Time was when canoes stuck to where they were legally allowed to go and swan numbers were realistically managed and we all saw ranunculus as a dominant summer friend. 

What’s not to like about ranunculus? It's beautiful, without a doubt, the iconic weed of the English river. It harbours insect life and this provides food for fish and a score of bird species. The ranunculus beds are where some fish choose to spawn and most love to lie, protected from the sun and from predators both. A river without ranunculus is like a summer wood without leaves and that thought brings me back to Tim.

chicken wire experiment

Tim’s chicken wire experiment - Credit: John Bailey

How did his experiment get on, then? As I remember it, a glorious success. The ranunculus within Tim’s fencing grew as thick and luxuriant as Elvis Presley’s quiff and proved there was nothing wrong with water quality at all and all that was required to save it was a little common sense. How did this all play out you ask? It is Tim’s story, but as I remember it, the Environment Agency were not happy at all with such a silver bullet solution. I have a nagging feeling that Tim was commanded to remove what was deemed an incitement to flooding and I suspect his restored ranunculus beds went down the plug hole with the rest. 

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I’ve been out and about this week as work has demanded that I drive to the extreme north and west of the UK. The entire 1,500 miles have been cleared by the authorities so I am not angling’s equivalent of Dominic Cummins. A part of my remit has been to look into the status of two of our rarest freshwater fish species, the ferox trout and the wild carp.

John Bailey and a wild carp

John Bailey and a Norfolk wildie - Credit: John Bailey

Ferox are great predatorial brown trout that live in the vast glacial lochs of Scotland, Ireland and Wales so we have not had many of them sighted in Norfolk. Wildies, though, are a different kettle of oddity. Oldies like me will think of them as long, lean, fully-scaled carp of the type the monks ate a thousand years ago. They were extremely common here in the East until around 1960 when one water after another came to be stocked by strains of fast-growing mirror and common carp brought in from the continent.  It proved to be a situation a little like the grey/red squirrel scenario wherein the wild carp were gradually shunted into oblivion by their bullish, larger relatives. I have found some evidence that wildies still flourish in the extreme west of the UK and I wonder if there is some hope of re- establishing them here in the east? 

The excellent Dr Carl Sayer has shown that crucian carp can be rehabilitated by saving their ponds and spreading their numbers and I’d like to think that wildies could be similarly saved. (Coincidentally, this week I was asked to be the President of the Wild Carp Society so you could say i have a vested interest in this?).

There are still a very few seemingly authentic wild carp populations hereabouts and perhaps these remaining pockets could provide juveniles to stock surrounding, suitable venues. For the life of me, I can’t see what would be too difficult about this. After all, the monks spread carp around like this in Norman times and they did not have the advantages of tarmac and Discoveries.

There might be two problems that I can see. Would our old favourites, the Environment Agency, give their permission? Your guess is as good as mine with that lot. More fundamentally, would there be an appetite for a carp strain any more that rarely exceeds 10lb in weight and grows at the rate of an oak tree? Are we all bewitched into thinking that everything from a McDonalds to a carp has to be super massive and rotund? Or do some of us agree there are English eccentricities worth saving? Test match cricket or the FA Cup, to keep to sporting examples, perhaps? 

Another coincidence. I was clearing out my tackle shed in the one afternoon I wasn’t whizzing about and I came across the barbel rod and reel John Wilson gave me before he went to Thailand. The last time I saw him use it was on the Wensum beneath Lenwade where he had just caught a 10-pounder from a run garlanded in ranunculus. This made me remember how I had once caught him three wild carp that he stocked in his pond in Taverham and which he took with him when he moved up the valley to Lake House. Not much to add really, is there?