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John Bailey: Why were fish shunned in the State of Nature report?

PUBLISHED: 06:00 08 January 2020

John Bailey with a bristling perch. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey with a bristling perch. Picture: John Bailey

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I know it is now 2020 and I am talking about the State of Nature report compiled by August conservation bodies in 2019 but this remains worth a Google.

Robbie Northman knows the true glory of catching a perch. Picture: John BaileyRobbie Northman knows the true glory of catching a perch. Picture: John Bailey

In one way it does not tell us much that we anglers do not know. For example, skylark and barn owl numbers are down 60 percent on just a few years ago.

I'm surprised this is so little: I can count the number of larks I heard sing this summer on the fingers of one hand.

As for barn owls, I spend most dusks on a riverbank one place or another and this winter I have seen two. TWO!

In the 70s I'd count four a night. The report claims 90 percent of house sparrows are gone. I'm not surprised. How long is it since any of us were woken for a summer tench session by dawn sparrows chattering in the eves? Hedgehogs are down by 50 percent over 20 years we are told. I'd have said more myself. Times were when you couldn't go night fishing without hearing the little darlings in the bushes or seeing them make off with your bait.

I haven't had a "piggy" encounter for a decade. Sixty percent of the overall insect population has collapsed this century too it seems. That is great for your windscreen as you return from a summer night out but it is a rubbish statistic for the birds. And, of course, for the fish.

Fish! Did I hear fish? The funny thing is that throughout this dense 55-page report there is barely a mention of the word. There is a passing reference to marine fisheries and if you hunt through the websites of the contributing conservation bodies you might find, like I did, a single photo of a stickleback. But that's it, that's what the high and mighty have to say about the State Of Fish in 2019. Nothing. Everything from an avocet to a worm merits inclusion providing there aren't scales or fins involved. This should make us steam. All us anglers love to see butterflies, mayflies, kingfishers and even, time to time, the booming bittern. But we might well ask why our glorious fish deserve such complete disregard?

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I think we all have to say this is extraordinary but I think it is nearer criminal. At least because I now know the meaning of the word "woke" (look it up!), I'd say this approach is Fishist. Fish, it seems, are being deliberately discriminated against by the scores of Trusts and Foundations that are being entrusted with the well being of our land and water. And is it not a fact that many of our historic UK fish species are in as much trouble as the house sparrow? What about the Windermere char? How many vendace still roam the glacial lakes?

A professor friend of mine who knows about these things reckons that river roach populations are down 80 percent since 1990 with barbel stocks not far behind.

Sea trout runs have crashed on over 50 percent of UK watercourses and if trout fishers didn't have stocked rainbows to go at, there wouldn't be enough wild browns for the half of them. So, conservationists, there you go. Don't think that fish are not in trouble because they are. And aren't fish the "canaries in the mine"? Doesn't a crashing fish population tell you something is wrong to the environmental core? And, come to think of it, aren't fish pretty fundamental to the well being of sexier creatures like herons, grebes and, yes, otters?

Who is to blame for Fishism and how do we put an end to it? As a major educator in this country I'd put a lot of blame at the door of the humble TV, the BBC in particular. Think of the wonderful natural history programs that have been made over our lifetimes and try to remember how many times fish have starred in them. Yes, like you, I'm still thinking. At one time I did a lot of work for the BBC's Natural History Unit down in Bristol. I got to know some real stars of the conservation world but they still had to think of the figures and stats.

One producer told me that a bat has more public appeal than a barbel and that she'd be fired if she even suggested a series on UK wild fish species. Given this rabid anti-fish attitude it is hardly surprising the general public remain utterly ignorant, completely blind to the unparalleled beauty of the fish we glory in.

Whilst a kingfisher is all in-your-face bling, you have to look hard to see how stunning a perch can be. And you need to know where and how to look into the bargain. So I admit that fish are not as immediately accessible as other forms of wildlife but with modern technology surely greater attempts could be made to unravel their world?

Is there hope? Probably not to be honest but I do notice that Tony Juniper has been appointed as Chair of Natural England recently (on a salary of £546 a day I also notice). The significance of this lies in the fact that Tony is an ardent river fisherman and only last month or thereabouts caught his first river two pound roach. That makes him a star in my eyes from the get-go and I'd say he is worth £5k a day if he can make the statutory authorities and conservation groups wake up to the fact that fish count and that they need much more help than they are getting.

Then again, could it just be that part of the appeal fish hold for us is actually because they are so mysterious and so largely unknown and private? Anyone can work out how ducks behave in an afternoon but it takes a lifetime to get into the mindset of a fish. Take this festive season. I've never know better weather for a chub hunt so I've been out day after day and caught next to nowt. Are the fish there or have they gone elsewhere? Are they not biting? Are my baits rubbish? Are my methods rubbish? Am I rubbish? Let's see what answers to all these questions 2020 brings our way but I'm not holding my breath on any of them.


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