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John Bailey: Can Feargal Sharkey and Co save our rivers? You bet!

Can anglers like Feargal Sharkey, Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer save our rivers? Picture: John Bailey

Can anglers like Feargal Sharkey, Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer save our rivers? Picture: John Bailey

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I don’t know about you but I am totally not a fan of modern celebrity culture.

I can watch a hundred TV shows where celebs are wheeled on to boost ratings and relish in shouting ‘who’s that? Never seen him/her in my life before’. Who is who in the culture of reality TV, the soaps and boy bands leaves me cold and yet I am forced to concede through gritted teeth that celebs can be a force for good. Joanna Lumley did all right by the Gurkhas and I heard her speak movingly for Compassion In World Farming. That can’t be a bad thing surely? As a kid I supported Jane Fonda’s crusade against the Vietnam war (though that was because I was scared I might have to go and fight and because I fancied her to bits). Live Aid meant well, as does Angelina Jolie, I am quite sure.

The point of all this? Well, it irks me to say it, but all the well-known anglers in the UK can unite and bang on about a cause like the decline in our rivers and no one in power cares a jot. But get a proper celebrity on the case and bingo, he or she is on the news or The One Show or Country File before you can say Matt Baker. As an example, I’ll point you to a Guardian feature last week. This paper, like it or loathe it, has assembled all the gruesome facts about river mismanagement in the UK into one horrifying article – 14pc of rivers reach a good ecological standard. Rivers have got worse since 2016. The aim to have 75pc of rivers classified good by 2027 has been dropped. In the past year, there have been 200,000 raw sewage discharges into rivers. Chemical discharges and agricultural run-off into rivers have both risen since 2016. The Environment Agency have tested 4,600 rivers and lakes and found not one of good quality. The Chair of this wonderful body describes the results as “not good enough”. Wow! The Environment minister says the data is “not comfortable reading”. Wow again! It would seem to me that neither of these two women, Emma Howard Boyd and Rebecca How, are the rough, tough types to enforce meaningful change. To frighten the EA, the water companies, big business and the farming lobby, you have to have teeth.

Enter Feargal Sharkey, ex-Undertones singer, great angler and even greater campaigner.

“Catastrophic” is how he described the piece, not “uncomfortable” or “not good enough.” And because he is right and because he appeared on Top Of The Tops, Feargal got TV time and was listened to. The thing is, even though I’m celeb averse, I’m actually happy about this. I have mentioned before that Feargal is a brilliant talker, a diligent researcher and a dynamic, forceful human being. He hails from a time when Ireland was being torn in half by The Troubles and he knows what a fight actually means. He’s brave and above everything else he is utterly absolutely sincere. He is not battling to save rivers for money or even for good fishing. He just knows what is right and what is not and he’ll use his celebrity for no ulterior motive whatsoever. If I sound star-struck I really don’t care. As far as I am concerned, Feargal is THE man.

There are some cracking anglers amongst the more serious and intelligent of celebs, types you might not find on Love Island. I’m thinking Jeremy Paxman, Mike Atherton, Ian Botham, Chris Tarrant, Eric Clapton and, of course, Mortimer and Whitehouse. I’ve named only a few of them, but supposing you could harness them all in our fight to save our wild fisheries? Just perhaps a team like this one could garner enough TV air time to shake the authorities and force action out of them. As I said at the start of this piece, such a vision might not naturally be my obvious cup of tea, but I say blow to my sensibilities if the job gets done.

The trouble is, just when your heart is in your boots and you are geared to shoot the next polluter you see, Old Mother Nature takes your breath away with her indescribable beauty and her refusal to lie down and die. I am old enough to remember a time when you could walk our autumn rivers and, when they were clear, you could see enormous shoals of enormous, gorgeous roach pretty much everywhere. My first sighting was up at Bintree Mill the year Jane Fonda spoke out and the Wensum was equally vibrant and luscious. Those fish gleamed in the sunlight and my young heart was lost. The last time I saw more than a single 2lb roach in any of our rivers was probably last century. To be honest, I’d half given up looking and had taken up unicorn spotting instead. But then, Thursday last, in a clear water stream, I saw six of them sunning themselves in late September sunshine. No way am I telling you which river I was on, but the swim was classic. Five feet deep. Nicely paced over gravel and sand. A rippling mane of ribbon weed. A thick cover of willow far bank. If God had created this swim, he couldn’t have given it more roach appeal. And the fish! Honest, all were ‘twos’ and two were nearer the fabled ‘three’. They all looked immaculate and half of me still thinks I must have been dreaming.

Of course, I tried to catch them that afternoon and the next day. But know what? By then, I think they had gone, just melted away. From Saturday work pulled me away from the county and as you read this, I have not been able to return. Part of me can’t wait to try again and part of me dreads failing or, worse, finding them gone for sure. I’m so worked up I can’t think of much else and I’m like that prepubescent kid up at Bintree all over again.

Yes, roach can do that to an old geezer like me and if Feargal and the Gang of Celebs can save them and the river they swim in, they’ll get my undying support to the end of the road.


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