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John Bailey: Can this toil and trouble save our fishing?

PUBLISHED: 11:08 09 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:08 09 April 2018

John Bailey fishing the Avon at Somerley. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey fishing the Avon at Somerley. Picture: John Bailey

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There are many anglers whose only care is to catch as many fish as possible from a managed fishery, often a commercial and often fenced.

Terry Lawton netting insects from the river. Picture: John BaileyTerry Lawton netting insects from the river. Picture: John Bailey

There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But there are many others who care about how our fish and our fisheries are faring in a modern era that is perhaps uniquely and environmentally hostile to them. This is not simply selfish, the desire to catch more fish. It’s far more a drive to preserve what of the aquatic environment remains to us, an environment that, whether we like it or not, is becoming increasingly under threat from the demands we are making upon it.

The other day, I was walking the upper reaches of one of our rivers and I came upon three of the hardworking, altruistic anglers that I am talking about. Terry Lawton was in the water in his chestwaders, kick sampling the bed to release the insects resident there and to catch them in a large net placed downstream.

On the bank, Dave Pitchers and Richard Slaughter were analysing the aquatic insects that Terry was bringing back to them. In the end, all three of them sat around the plastic bowls investigating what invertebrates the river holds. Seeing them hunched there, engrossed in their task, reminded me a little bit of Macbeth. It was all bubble bubble, toil and trouble as they investigated some of the most extraordinary-looking aquatic creatures.

I can’t tell you how much I admire guys like this. They are willing to put in the time and the effort to help preserve what we’ve got left of our aquatic environment. It’s a great testimony to the human spirit and human optimism. They are experts in their field and the knowledge that they are accruing I suppose is invaluable. The fact remains, though, that this stretch of river that they are working so hard to protect has seen its fish populations nosedive over the last 40 years.

Richard and Dave scrutinizing the insects Terry brings them. Picture: John BaileyRichard and Dave scrutinizing the insects Terry brings them. Picture: John Bailey

Whilst populations of olives seem to remain vibrant, what on earth has happened to the roach, the dace and the perch? It’s almost like walking a ghost river.

I don’t know if you have come across a blog called The Avon Diary, written by John Levell, the river-keeper at Somerley, an estate on the River Avon down in Hampshire? I ought to point out that the Somerley Estate is iconic in angling history and the Avon there was the stretch where Richard Walker claimed to have seen and caught 20lb barbel back in the 1950s. This place has history, but John’s recent blog displayed the anguish and the torment that so many of us who love rivers and natural stillwaters feel. It resonated with pain. I’ll try to précis it and analyse it for you because it really is a milestone.

John talks about the ever-exploding population of otters down at Somerley, in part revealed by the number of trail cameras there. It seems they are as common as foxes. Apart from the river, John has six lakes to manage and the otters, especially in the cold weather, have absolutely trashed a percentage of the carp population. John has been understandably heart-broken this winter. His options, though, are painfully limited.

He asks how he could possibly countenance the 16 miles of otter fencing he would need to put up to protect six miles of the river and the perimeter of all the lakes. And John is countryman enough to know that even if he were to do this, all he would do is destroy the natural integrity of a wonderful, ancient site. Make no mistake, otter fences are an abomination when it comes to the welfare of wildlife.

This sample of olive nymphs shows the river to be in fine fettle. Picture: John BaileyThis sample of olive nymphs shows the river to be in fine fettle. Picture: John Bailey

John also wonders how it can be that his carp, often worth in excess of £3,000, can be butchered by otters without any recompense from the state. He asks how it is that farmers who lose their cattle to TB, for example, are compensated whereas fishery owners are not. Where on earth is the difference?

John is rightly disgusted by the thought of fencing his lakes alone, even though that might protect his valuable carp. He could not forget his river. However, as he says, even the Avon is full of pesticides, phosphates, micro-plastics, alien rainbow trout and society’s detritus. As John further argues, fencing stillwaters simply pushes otters even more onto the rivers where they focus on the barbel, chub, roach and wildfowl.

But I think what annoys John Levell most is the way that DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Natural England and all our statutory bodies have washed their hands of their duties. They seem to be right behind otter fencing because it is the easiest answer by far. Introduce carp into a water, fence them safely and, they argue, the job is done, the environment is saved. This could not be further from the truth.

Yes, as I say, The Avon Diary is well, well worth reading if you are one of those anglers who wants to see fisheries flourish. This is an opportune time of the year. Spring is springing. Nature, once again, is trying to push forth, to replenish. It also happens to be the time when we are asked to renew our Environment Agency Rod Licences. Perhaps we ought ask even more forcefully how our money is being spent.

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