John Bailey: Avon Roach Project illustrates what can be done with genuine expertise

Avon Roach Project John Bailey

The Avon Roach Project is a fascinating read, says John Bailey. - Credit: John Bailey

Once again, an extraordinary book has come my way for review.  

Some, perhaps many, of you will not have heard of the Avon Roach Project but perhaps you should have done. A little bit of history, if I may. For much of the last century, Norfolk’s Wensum and Hampshire’s Avon were the best known big roach rivers in England, perhaps even the best ever. Then, from the early eighties, both fell into devastating decline at pretty much the same time.  

A raft of reasons has been put forward to explain this. Deep dredging. Flooding. Flood plain management. Agricultural chemical seepage. Mechanised weed cutting. Destruction of off river spawning sites. Compacted gravels. Declining invertebrate numbers. Disease. Predation. The only thing I have not heard blamed is joining the E.U. 
Up here in Norfolk, by and large, we did nothing about the roach collapse but whinge. The scientists at the AWA back in the day tried hard to deny there was even a problem. The newly formed Environment Agency tried to grasp the nettle 20 years back but made not a shred of progress. A few clubs like the Wensum Anglers Conservation Association and The Norfolk Flyfishers made promising beginnings and a scattering of individuals like me did what we could, which wasn’t much in the big scheme of things. In Hampshire, however, the Avon Roach Project (ARP) was conceived and it is highly likely that this has in fact made a real difference.  
The ARP was the brainchild of two very ordinary roach anglers, Trevor Harrop and Budgie Price. Ordinary is actually completely the wrong word. These twin powerhouses of determination and vision have accomplished more than a hundred highly paid fishery scientists could have dreamed of. They have done it off the back of a good idea and years of hard grind and exhausting work in the most vile of conditions. They have not wasted their time in a plethora of meetings, concocting fantastical proposals and putting together mountains of unused and useless data. No. Trevor and Budgie have acted, something even more remarkable when you consider the latter has been confined to wheelchair all these years.  
In essence, the plan the pair came up with was this. They set about collecting the eggs of true Avon roach that the few survivors laid on spawning boards specially constructed for the purpose. These eggs were hatched out in tanks in Trevor’s garden and the fry, fingerlings and young fish were fed and brought on in stew ponds along the river valley. Once big and strong enough, these hand sized beauties were netted out and placed strategically back into the parent river. Here, the evidence suggests, many have survived, grown on and have themselves spawned and kick-started a general roach revival.  
This is amazing, fantastic, about the only good news I can think to report in this dire winter of ours but I feel I have not done the ARP due justice. I have not underlined the years of struggle that the book details. I have not mentioned the opposition the pair of crusaders encountered or, even worse, the condescension doled out by those who hardly knew what a roach looked like.  

I have made the whole process sound like child’s play when it was in fact year upon year of struggle off the chart. Trevor and Budgie showed bravery, determination and positivity that should make fishery experts everywhere wince. You might well ask if two ordinary folks like these can pull off the extraordinary, then why aren’t those who we are paying to protect natural fisheries doing nothing? Perhaps this is the huge importance of the ARP? Perhaps coarse anglers have to do things for themselves because the authorities aren’t going to do much.  
Things are a little different in the game world where salmon and trout attract significantly more attention. There are some snooty reasons for this that I’ll avoid if I can but in part it is down to money. If a farmer with a trout river can charge £400 a day for a ticket then he’ll die to protect those trout. When a roach angler moans about stumping up a fiver then there is hardly the same appeal. That is why I have sung the praises of Robin Combe up at Bayfield for so many years because the man cares about all fish, adipose fin or not. Here’s a man who appreciates the beauty of a roach for what it is, without pound signs dancing before his eyes.  
But I can’t avoid class altogether. Trout are regarded as just a little bit posher than a roach by those who know little about the matter. Trout attract help from the various River Trusts around the UK which by and large are happy to forget roach even have a life that matters. Trout have The Wild Trout Trust, led by the exceptional Shaun Leonard and which has done cracking work. Trout inspire the devotion of men like Nick Zoll, Charles Rangeley- Wilson, Terry Lawton, Peter Suckling,Tim Aldiss and scores of other Norfolk heroes who have kept the fly fishing map of the county vibrant. All power to men like these. We just need a few Trevors and Budgies thrown in. 
Loads of things happened this week and one of them was a Zoom interview I gave to the up and coming camera man Jack Perks, who has recently had films of his shown on Countryfile. Jack is a real angler who adores even a stickleback and why not!? Yet even he had to ask what it is about the roach that has made them the country’s favourite fish ever since polls were taken.  

Well, chapter 44 of the ARP book is entitled Roach, Glorious Roach and there are pictures of a huge female roach coming to a spawning board where she is jostled by smaller males. The book is worth buying for these alone and I have sat for hours transfixed by them. Also this week I have been described as “roach crackers” on Twitter or some such. Guilty as charged. An angler tired of roach is truly tired of life. 

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