John Bailey: Is Norfolk’s beloved River Wensum in danger of disappearing?

This stretch of Wensum used to be 4 to 5 deep it barely needs wellies to walk across Picture: John Bailey

This stretch of Wensum used to be 4 to 5 deep it barely needs wellies to walk across Picture: John Bailey


It is easy for me to name Barry Tomlin as this week’s Robert Shanks Award winner, even though he hasn’t caught anything of note that I know of.

Never think for a moment cormorants can’t work out so called hiding areas Picture: John BaileyNever think for a moment cormorants can’t work out so called hiding areas Picture: John Bailey

Nor do I think he will be going into Wensum Valley Angling any time soon to claim his prize of boilies. No, I nominate Barry because he has known the river Wensum for most of his 80-something years. He loves it, cares for it and it half kills him to see the way it has become shrunken, abused and all but fishless in the course of his lifetime. Shamefully, he is one of the few who feel this way and one of an even smaller number who are trying to do anything to save it.

Barry has been waging what amounts to a one-man war to save the Wensum for years. I have met him on occasion and been inspired by him. More often, he has sent me letters that are almost book long, all handwritten, all full of depressing facts that are impossible to ignore. His most recent letter landed on my door mat last week, 31 pages long, and it took me all of a morning to assimilate. This is more like a testament and in it Barry is holding the Environment Agency and Natural England to account.

Basically, his argument is that the Wensum is in a state so critical that we could lose it within a couple more dry summers. It is hard to précis such a long letter, so dense with observations, but I'll try. In essence, Barry believes that the Wensum has been mismanaged for years, probably since the war years. Not many of us would disagree that the deep dredging practised throughout the second half of the last century was brutally done and has had lasting consequences. Most of us would also agree with him that abstraction has become a debilitating fact of river life over the last 50 years.

But Barry also maintains that what he sees as the EA's mismanagement of the mill sluices all the way down the river is also key. Certainly, the reduction in sluice control over the years has not helped flow regimes always and it is also true that the EA would like to see the historic mills done away with altogether.

John Bailey with Barry Tomlin'’s letter laid out in front of him. It makes for grim reading Picture: John BaileyJohn Bailey with Barry Tomlin'’s letter laid out in front of him. It makes for grim reading Picture: John Bailey

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To be fair, the EA has not ignored Barry altogether. Rachael Storr, leader of the Asset Performance team, sent him a two A4 pages reply. It failed to satisfy Barry and it shouldn't satisfy any of us, whatever we fish for or wherever we do it.

The most important paragraph of Rachael's letter is worth quoting in full: "We take our statutory duties seriously and have made a number of tangible and demonstrable improvements to habitat on the Wensum over the last decade. These improvements have increased the river's ecological resistance and resilience to future climate change. In particular, these improvements benefit fish stocks by providing them a range of habitats to accommodate the various stages of their life cycle-fast flow and coarse gravel for spawning, backwater channels with slack flow that provide refuge during floods and complex physical structures that create hiding areas from predation and territorial conflict. We are optimistic that these interventions will slowly lead to improved fish stocks as well as wider biodiversity benefits."

Well, as Barry ask, where do we start with all this, words that do sound superficially just so comforting? The trouble is that we have been hearing these promises over and over for 25 years, not just the last decade as Rachael claims. The whole mantra of "habitat, habitat, habitat" was one that all we anglers embraced back in the 90s. At last we had an authority that both stopped deep dredging and began, we hoped, to put the river right. The mind blowing problem with all this is that none of these improvements has been "demonstrable" or "tangible" in the least. The single fact that Barry underlines is that the more fishery scientists we have had and the more improvements they have carried out, the fewer fish we have seen. Given a choice between the river in 1970 when it was badly treated and 2019 when it is supposedly looked after, Barry, like me, would choose the earlier date time upon time.

What Barry says is true. Providing coarse gravels for spawning is not much use if there are few fish to spawn, if canoeists smash the eggs to pulp and if cormorants hoover up the fingerlings the coming autumn. So called "hiding areas from predation" sound good stuff, but they provide absolutely no protection at all out there in the real world of violent nature. Anyone who has seen cormorants hunt as often as I have will know they can work out any hiding area in minutes. And as for all these "backwater channels" well, where are they? As Barry knows, the EA did construct one above Swanton Morley Falls a few years back. They have failed to keep it in good repair and now I defy anyone even to guess where it once existed.

More importantly, Barry sent me two photographs of the Wensum below the road bridge near Fakenham town centre. One was taken in 1955 and the second this August. I doubt if the river today is a fifth of what it was when Barry was a young man. Further south, counties like Hertfordshire have all but lost a host of rivers like the Beane, The Rib, the Ver and the Ash. The Wensum on this evidence cannot be far behind. It doesn't matter what you fish for or whether you even fish at all. Water management, both fresh and salt, is going to be the next big thing, bigger than worries about plastic, recycling and even emissions. Sometimes it takes an impassioned 80-year-old man from King's Lynn to make us realise that.

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