John Bailey: What would John Wilson have made of it all?

The late, great John Wilson

The late, great John Wilson - Credit: John Bailey

Many of us remember where we were when we heard of the Twin Towers tragedy. Some of us recall what we were doing when the news of Kennedy’s assassination reached us.

I remember how I felt the morning I heard of John Wilson’s passing almost three years ago. I was on set with Gone Fishing up in the north where Mortimer and Whitehouse were pursuing grayling.

Up on the Ure where I working and heard the news about John Wilson

Up on the Ure where I working and heard the news about John Wilson - Credit: John Bailey

We failed that day, but a blank faded into all insignificance, of course, and Paul was as upset by the news as I was. As an angler who had known John way before he found TV fame, I gave a few interviews on the river bank, which was as cold and bleak as the news itself and for the rest of that long day, memories flooded back.

I guess John was one of the first to realise that our Norfolk rivers were facing a looming crisis. In 1974, even whilst we were knee deep in two pound roach, John prophesied the disgraceful mess that we face now. At the time, I was simply a roach-mad lad, barely listening to a word he said, but I recall those words now in their every detail.

John had a low opinion of the way our rivers had been governed, right back to the seemingly pre-history days of the East Suffolk and Norfolk River Board. The Anglian Water Authority that eventually replaced it was worse and when that, in its turn, gave way to the National Rivers Authority, John reckoned we were seeing an all-time low in river protection. Of course, the NRA was eventually subsumed into the present Environment Agency and by 2013, John had seen enough and escaped the river debacle here for a life in Thailand.   

In 1975, when John and I were roach fishing at North Elmham, we watched the deep dredger carving the guts out of the Wensum there and John turned to me saying things couldn’t get much worse. Really? What would he have made of the EA catastrophes of the last month or so? First. of course. we had their Regulatory Position Statement that virtually gave water companies the green light to pump raw, untreated sewage into our river systems. It took a threat of legal action by the increasingly excellent Angling Trust to make them reconsider their position and, to a degree, climb down from it.

Next, we have the wisdom spouted by the new Chair of the EA, Emma Howard Boyd who has come to the position after 25 years working in fund management compliance. Whatever that is I am unsure, but I do know that it doesn’t sound much like a grounding in water management to me. Her mission statement Adapt Or Die (or some such nonsense) was launched amidst much Domesday mumbo jumbo but in essence it said that the EA was doing a grand job and any water supply problems in the future would be down to climate change and be nothing to do with her. The basis of this assertion? EA scientists had worked out our average rainfall in 2050 will be 32 inches a year compared with the current 33 inches. If that sounds like a conclusive excuse to Emma, it doesn’t to me or anyone I have spoken to. 

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Believe it or not, there is worse to come. As you probably know already, as I write, the EA appears determined to push ahead with the installation of fish barriers at the entrance to Hoveton Great Broad. The potential damage that would be inflicted to one of the prime spawning locations has been made clear by the EA’s own fishery staff and by the Institute of Fishery Management after seven years of research at a cost of £250,000. The impact on fish, fishing and the fishing-based economy of the Broads could be profound, but what does the EA care about any of that? One of our conservation heroes, Kelvin Allen, has said that the EA has lost the trust of anglers over this move. 

So what would Wilson have made of all this? That wry smile? “I told you so”, perhaps? Back in those far-off days, the term “Norfolk Mafia” was coined to describe the specimen hunting scene hereabouts. It could be that the succession of failed fishery authorities have had it easy because there has been such a degree of in-fighting amongst anglers themselves? Many anglers who should have been fighting for rivers these 40 years past have been too busy fishing for their own reputations and for a long while I place myself in this category of self seekers.

Possibly, if more of us had listened to Wilson back in 1975 we wouldn’t be in the dire position we are today.

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