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John Bailey: The message of Dodger's mammoth eel that we all must heed

PUBLISHED: 06:29 17 July 2019

It doesn’t look much yet but it will become an urban wildlife haven, says John Bailey. Picture: John Bailey

It doesn't look much yet but it will become an urban wildlife haven, says John Bailey. Picture: John Bailey

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One of the many joys of writing this column is the feedback I receive and the reassurance I am not writing in some lost vacuum.

I was especially honoured a few days ago to open an eight-page, hand written letter from Ron Green of Norwich.

Ron is in his eighties now and his missive was crammed with memories from the mid years of last century, when let's face it, there were more fish around.

He also enclosed a copy of a Roy Webster story in the Eastern Evening News from May 1974 describing the capture of Ron's colossal 6 pound 11ounce eel from Fritton Lake.

Ron's piscatorial nickname was Dodger and, my word, he'd certainly been "artful" to catch that eel.

Going by Dodger's letter, eels were very much his thing half a century and more ago.

They provided great sport, they were plentiful in the extreme and there was even a bit of money in the selling of them I guess.

The Fritton monster seems to have been Dodger's biggest eel but the letter was full of tussles with pythons that broke away from him, often in the dead of night, occasionally on venues where perhaps he was fishing without all the necessary permissions.

I'm not one to judge and I thank Dodger from the bottom of my heart for reminding me - and us- of a time when there were eels everywhere, fish everywhere and the pulse of our waters was still beating hard.

I don't always watch Gardeners' World but I'm glad I did last Friday evening on BBC 2. Monty Don and team were investigating the catastrophic collapse of the nation's wildflower meadows, alerting us all to the fact that 97 percent of them have disappeared within Dodger's lifetime.

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NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT! No wonder I can barely remember when I last saw cornflowers, spotted orchids, yellow rattle, red clover, bird's foot trefoil or even daisies, cow parsley and poppies on my walks to the water.

Our agriculture is industrial, our fields shorn of colour, scent, pollen and insect life. No wonder we don't get moths on our windscreen any more, driving home from the pub on a warm July evening.

I was watching Monty because after years of being a ruralite I have recently moved into the suburbs and in an effort to cling to my country roots, I have dug myself a garden pond. Or rather the excellent Ian Wilson from Wild Ponds in Great Ryburgh has dug it for me.

The pond isn't much bigger than a landing net but what amazed me was that only two days after the water went in, there were water beetles whizzing around, doing their business.

Not very academic that description I know but the wonderment is there. Considering the layout of the modern housing estate, from where had those beetles flown?

How had they divined that there was new water out there, waiting for them to colonise?

Even more staggering was the sighting of a female hawker dragonfly laying her eggs on water plants that Ian had only minutes before come and planted. Where had this jumbo jet of an insect come in from and how had her navigational systems worked? Gardeners' World made the strong case that if our 23 million gardens united to dig ponds and sow wild flowers we might get back some of the diversity we have shamelessly squandered. My better half likes the tidiness of a close cropped lawn but Monty has persuaded her. We are going to do our bit and sacrifice neatness for nature. Taverham Garden Centre here we come.

So, Dodger, your letter could not have come at a better time. I have just endured one of the worst fishing weeks on the upper rivers that I have ever known.

True, the weather has been largely bright and hot and the rivers low and clear but even so the absence of fish has been depressingly staggering.

Those fish I have seen have been too scared witless by all the pressures they face to think of feeding, in the daylight hours at least. Half of them, too, have carried the marks of predator attacks, by herons, cormorants, otters or pike. We have a situation where there are more predators than prey and fish stocks, coarse and game, are on a knife edge.

That is one of the benefits of having kept fishing diaries from being six years old. I can go to July entries through the 1970s and see Dodger is spot on. The rivers were bigger, deeper, faster, brimming with weed, banks buzzing with insects and of course, heaving with fish. I'm not as old as Dodger but in my life time the environmental decay has been appalling. Red clover and roach. Poppies and perch. Trefoil and trout. Unless we do something darned soon, we'll lose the lot.

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