Friday 24 November 2023

Yes Ministers. The revolving door at the Environment Ministry




This is not a preview of the quiz but what do you get if you divide 9 between 13? The number of Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since 2010.


In case you were wondering, prior to the latest incumbent Steve Barclay appointed last week (more of him later) they were Thérèse Coffey, Ranil Jayawardena, George Eustice, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Elizabeth Truss (who blessed us with beavers), Owen Paterson and Caroline Spelman. The longest time in the job was two years and the shortest seven weeks. I think for the sake of balance I should also point out that the Labour government of 1997-2010 went through a rather more modest four office holders though I don’t recall John Prescott, Margaret Beckett, David Miliband or Hilary Benn being particular champions of the countryside or our rivers.


If you look through the full list of 27 office holders since the inception of the environment brief in 1970, you would be hard pressed to recall any one of them in terms of notable achievements. In fact, the only one to stick in the mind would be John Gummer (now Lord Deben) for all the wrong reasons. I’m also tempted to conclude environment has been seen by successive Prime Minsters as a handy backwater in which to moor a loyal supporter or potentially troublesome rebel at Cabinet level where they will not scare the horses. Which brings us to Steve Barclay.



However kindly you read Barclay’s CV it is hard to find much in it to suggest an interest in the environment. Yes, he represents a largely rural constituency in East Anglia but his professional life prior to parliament was all about law then finance which has been reflected in his six (!) ministerial positions since 2018. Moving from Health to Environment this time, generally regarded as a demotion, will hardly be motivating for him or the civil servants who will know he has 14 months in the post at best. And that is all before you take into account the fact that his wife is a senior executive at Anglian Water, one of the worst performing water companies. It is a horrible conflict of interest that will severely hamper his time in office.


But the tragedy of his appointment, and most of the twenty six before him, is not for the individuals but rather the department they were meant to serve. Nobody can ever hope to get on top of a brief as complicated as environment in such short spaces of time and without a passion to save our countryside from the worst excesses of human endeavour. The best we can hope of Barclay is that he puts his legal and financial abilities to create a Conservative manifesto pledge to reform not just the water industry but also the regulators who are supposed to protect the interest of consumers aka voters.



Steve Barclay



Trains, planes, automobiles and unspeakables

Goodness, another week another piece of the River Itchen for sale. This time it is at Bishopstoke, what you and I would call Eastleigh to redress a bit of estate agent geographical licence.


If that location does not help it is well down the Itchen system, a mile or so upstream of the M27 so not far from Southampton Airport. If you’ve fished any beats in the area, you’d be immediately upstream of Lower Itchen Fishery and a couple of miles downstream of Shawford Park, Qing Ya Xi, Kanara and Breach Farm.



River Itchen


It is a good bit of water, with plenty of variety, that when last sold two decades ago was marketed as a salmon beat. Sadly, the world has moved on and not in a good way for our Atlantic friends so pickings in that department will be thin. That said with a 1,261 yards of double bank fishing this represents good value on a yard-by-yard basis compared to recent sales on the Anton, Itchen, Lambourn and Test.


In the end it will be your stomach for the airport, motorway, train line and sewage works that determines whether this is for you. It is not as bad in aggregate as all that sounds, but best you should know. It is being sold by Savills; details on Rightmove here ….. 



The Barton side stream



John Bailey looks back on a barbel year on the River Wye

I do not think I have ever had a guest columnist before, so I am delighted to bring you the behind-the-scenes star of Mortimer and Whitehouse, all round amazing angler and friend John Bailey who volunteered this report as our ‘rookie’ guide on the River Wye.


“My guiding life was jogging along quite nicely thank you. I’ve been in the game for exactly thirty years and my regular clients and my work with Mortimer and Whitehouse were keeping me alive with a bit to spare. So why did I debate Simon Cooper’s suggestion that I introduce some of Fishing Breaks’ aficionados to the delights of barbel hunting on the Wye? Why indeed?


To be honest, whatever you lot might think, I’ve always enjoyed working with Cooper. For very many years, we’ve enjoyed projects together and I’ve had fun each and every time. I’m not going to blow much more smoke, you’ll be relieved to hear, but I’ve always found him entertaining, insightful and above all in this game, honest. So that’s all a good start, I reasoned.



John Bailey in action on the River Wye


Above all, my own angling career has roughly been split 55% coarse to 45% game with periods when one has taken precedence over the other, like the years I worked on the Hardy Creative Team and nearly forgot what a float looked like. This angling diversity has enriched my life in fishing so colossally that I have always felt a need to get this message across. It also explains my delight in my role at Mortimer and Whitehouse, Gone Fishing, a program that explores every fish species, every fishing method and every fishery type imaginable. This all-encompassing philosophy is also at the heart of How We Fish, the book Paul and I have just published, a book that I hope might draw angling’s differing factions closer and help unite the sport in these perilous times…how is that for a Christmas present plug!


There’s something else, an element important to me. When I was learning my trade in the late Fifties but especially the Sixties, coarse angling was vibrant, innovative, thrilling and magical fun. Pioneering anglers wrote about new methods, new baits, new tackle and whole new approaches that were all about involvement and a deeper understanding of how fish feed and how the waters they live in work as the seasons progress. As I progressed, I felt like a fishing detective immersed in the aquatic world, trying to solve mysteries every session I undertook. It was in the Seventies that coarse angling exploded with invention and became the most compelling of all angling’s disciplines … or so I felt. Today, all that energy has gone. Coarse angling in the main has become stereotyped, tedious, over engineered and largely confined to commercial fisheries where stunted carp arrive on the back of lorries. Anglers now rely on barrows to laboriously transport their mountainous amounts of gear a few yards to a swim that has been carefully prepared to be devoid of bushes, reeds or any twig of nature. This is fishing in a supermarket world and I loathe it.



.... and barbel makes three


So, when Cooper called, I was already on a mission to reel back the years and coarse fish in traditional ways, ways that rely on knowledge of the fish above all else. No bivvies. No barrows. No bolt rigs. Just the fisher and the fish and the minimal amount of gear to connect them. That’s what I was about but I was anxious. Would Fishing Breaks‘ predominantly game focused anglers embrace a coarse challenge and give something new a chance? Would they want to wade, feel for bites, bounce baits down the current, float fish, and potentially walk miles, trying different swims and different methods in each of them?


The answer, delightfully, has been YES! From the middle of June to the beginning of November a stream of trout and salmon anglers have come my Wye way and professed to having enjoyed themselves. I think that they have been reassured that we ( generally) keep on the move, that when the river levels allow, we get in there and that all my barbel kit ( spare shot and hooks) fits into a bum bag pouch. Rod, net, bait bucket and off we merrily go. Of course, the river and the fish are the real stars of the show. Who cannot be impressed by the Wye, even if accustomed to the Scottish or Icelandic rivers? And whilst chub are great, barbel are simply scintillating. They look gorgeous, can be cunning and can fight just as well as salmon pound for pound. ( and often much better.) They can even be caught on fly if that’s the route you want to stick with…and barbel on a five weight make bonefish look limp!


Guiding is a marriage. I do my very, very best to provide a good , interesting day even when the actual fishing is hard. I like clients ( or friends as I hope they soon become) to realise that, to listen and to take on board my recommendations. It’s good when they engage and understand that we are doing something skilful and exciting in sumptuous surroundings. Without exception , Cooper and his team have sent me people simply brilliant to be with. Feedback has been good and I’ve had wholly satisfying days when I have felt that my style of coarse fishing has been understood and enjoyed.


Roll on 2024! In the meanwhile, I am in the process of exploring the upper Wye and tributaries for the legendary grayling these enchanting stretches hold. Of course, fly fishing is productive and superb sport but so is trotting with float and bait. Grayling fishing is enjoying a real renaissance in popularity and spinning a centre pin is part of the drama. So, if I find the fish, watch out for upcoming Grayling Trotting Masterclasses(!!) throughout the wonderland that is the Welsh Marches. Until then, my thanks to Simon, all at Fishing Breaks and those excellent souls who have ventured with me on the coarse side!”


Thank you, John. And to follow up on those plugs How to Fish by Paul Whitehouse & John Bailey is available on Amazon and vouchers for guided days with John Bailey on the River Wye for groups of one to four from Fishing Breaks.






The normal random collection of questions inspired by the date, events or topics in the Newsletter. It is just for fun with answers at the bottom of the page.


1)    What froze over on this day is 1434 and 1715?


2)    Anglia is the Latin name for what?


3)   Name one of the two stars in the 1987 comedy Trains, Planes and Automobiles?



Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,



Simon Cooper

Founder & Managing




Quiz answers:


1)    River Thames

2)    England

3)    Steve Martin or John Candy







The Mill, Heathman Street, Nether Wallop,

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Friday 10 November 2023

Report claims more diverse nymph population than 30 years ago




The recent publication of a paper with the headline ‘Significant improvement in freshwater invertebrate biodiversity in all types of English rivers over the past 30 years’ in the scientific journal Science of The Total Environment has thrown the pollution activist lobby into all sorts of a tizzy because, for all the obvious reasons, it throws a significant spanner into the doom narrative.


Wildfish, the organisation previously known as the Salmon & Trout Association, now turned river environment advocates, rushed out a press release to, I think, trash or at least seriously cast doubt on the Total Environment paper. I say I think because the Wildfish release was even more baffling than the original paper and, having read both, I can tell you that took some doing. But more of that later. First let me give you my professional take which, usefully in this context, goes back 30 years.


If you were leaning over a bridge today looking down on chalkstream in a normal month of a normal year it would not look much different to 30 years ago. Indeed, I have seen colour photographs Halford took of the river at Mottisfont Abbey which you’d be hard pushed to date as 130 years ago. But appearances are deceptive. Travel to the head of the valleys, even at the height of the wettest winter, and streams have vanished in the past 30 years thanks to excessive abstraction. These will never return; we are literally losing miles of tiny, wild streams and brooks with every passing year. 



Looking over that bridge the water looks clear but we know it contains a cocktail of chemicals, agricultural, domestic and industrial that surely cannot be doing good. Indeed, you can cogently argue that the largely organic waste of Halford’s time was helpful to fish and bugs. Anyone who went sailing in the days when yachts vented waste directly into the sea will know there is nothing fish like more than s**t!


If anyone asks me what has changed most in my time on the chalkstreams it would be rising fish, or more particularly the lack thereof. Now, I cannot tell you definitively why this is. Some people point to the stocking of triploid trout, effectively a genetically modified trout. I’d go along with this except in my experience unstocked streams seem to have an equal lack of rising fish. Maybe, if the report is correct and the nymph population is on the rise, canny trout are not wasting time and effort on floating flies but rather munching away to their hearts content on the growing sub-surface population.

Part of my bafflement with regard to the lack of rising fish is the hatches. Now, it is often said we lack the hatches of old but I’ve not noticed that on a scale that would stop trout looking upwards. Often, I see a river thick with flying bugs, which supports the findings in the paper, but nary a fish moves. Are they, to repurpose that old British Rail excuse, the wrong type of flies? It could well be which brings us nicely around to the meat of the Total Environment paper.


The highlights of the paper (their words not mine) are that river macroinvertebrate richness has increased throughout England over the past 30 years with a recovery of pollution sensitive invertebrates reaching the reference condition, the improvement seen across all river types. If like me you find some of the jargon unhelpful ‘macroinvertebrate’ are bugs that can be seen with the human eye and ‘reference condition’ the expected population level in normal conditions. In short, the report is saying the assumption that pollution is causing biodiversity decline should be challenged because their data, which draws on solid monitoring going back 30 years, suggests something different.



Mayfly larvae . Image: Dr. Julian Taffner


Now this is where it gets murky, and to be fair to the authors of the report, they allude to this albeit buried in the footnotes. The question is how do you measure biodiversity or as they say in the highlights, richness? For the sake of explanation let me give you examples: your sample today shows five species compared to four at a previous sampling. That is a tick the box for increased biodiversity. However, what has not been measured, and is not part of the historic dataset, is the number of individual nymphs.


So, quite feasibly, you might have a total population of a hundred nymphs today comprising of five species whereas in the past there were a thousand nymphs comprising of four species. But, by the metric of the Total Environment analysis, the former is considered a win whereas you and I might feel the latter is preferable. As they say of all statistics, it is often what is hidden that is more revealing than what is shown.


Frankly, I’m not sure this report is the real deal and the headline screams clickbait to me. These reports are essentially advertorial for researchers who will have paid the journal in the region £3,000 to secure publication. Whilst I am going to file this one under the question mark heading I leave you with a last thought. In the previous Newsletter I quoted Ernest Pain’s Fifty Years on the Test. In it he talked about the river as it flowed through a town where it divided into two channels. One channel was productive for fishing, whilst the other, which carried a majority of the town ‘waste’ rarely saw a rising fish. As I say, just a thought.



Lead me to the water

Two newsletters ago, theming the quiz randomly around the colour white, I asked a question that required the answer of progressive rock band Procol Harum.


I thought nothing more of it until an email popped into my Inbox. Did I know Peter Cockwill, manager of Dever Springs and one of our guide team used to run a tackle shop with Procol Harum frontman, Gary Brooker? Indeed, I did not and a quick call to Pete confirmed that it was indeed so.



Peter Cockwill with his wife


Pete and Gary went back over four decades first becoming friends when Pete ran a fishing syndicate in Surrey, the friendship morphing into the shop in Godalming that was called Cockwill & Brooker. But actually, that wasn’t the greatest impact Gary had on Pete’s life but rather a casual question that has sparked Pete’s wanderlust for fishing around the globe, when he was invited to join Gary on a trip to Oregon. Tongue in cheek Pete calls that the ruination of his life, an invitation that was to open up the world for a country boy who barely had a passport, who now hosts regular trips to far away destinations.



Gary Brooker 1945-2022


Gary, who enjoyed all types of fishing from salmon in Alaska to sea fishing off the Isle of Wight, was a passionate tackle collector and had ponds at his Surrey home. He was also part of a small coterie fly fishing rock stars including Eric Clapton, the three of them regularly fishing together on the River Test. In fact above is the last fishing picture of Gary before his death to cancer in 2022, was taken on one of those trips with Pete.



The Angler lead me to the water Gary Brooker (1982)



Location, location, location

Estate agents Savills have relaunched to the market Fulling Mill on the River Itchen just upstream of Winchester, which if memory serves me correctly, originally came to the market two years ago at £5 million. It is now £3 million.


Before you rush to find the nearest cheque book you should know it is something of a curate’s egg – good in parts. The good is that it is set on 63 acres of water meadow, has a mile and a half of fishing with the Mill and Cottage totalling nearly 5,000 sq. ft. It is, as they say, in need of renovation for which you should read a complete gut job (some of which has been done) and the river is, to put it kindly, neglected. None of that is insuperable and at the price you should have plenty of headroom to do the work.



However, what is insuperable is the location the property sandwiched as it is between the M3 and the A34, with to top it off, the flight path to Southampton Airport above. And, if that was not enough of a discouragement a public footpath runs down the drive, right past the front door and through the garden. Of course, footpaths can be moved: Nether Wallop Mill had path that took a very similar route but the owners in the 1980’s managed to have it rerouted though it is a fiendishly complicated process requiring almost total unanimity of what we now call stakeholders.


In the case of Nether Wallop one member of the village retained the right to walk along the route of the old path for the duration of his lifetime, accompanied by a maximum of three members of his family, to attend church services, the right dying with his own death that occurred some 40 years later.  I suspect achieving a change of route, without some tangible gain, is much harder to do today especially in a National Park such as the South Downs in which the Fulling Mill is located.


The truth is that if you could pick Fulling Mill up and place it away from the not good parts of that curate’s egg you would be looking at a price tag of double or more; the mantra location, location, location has never been so valid. You can view the full details here. The property is offered as a whole or in three lots. 






The normal random collection of questions inspired by the date, events or topics in the Newsletter. It is just for fun with answers at the bottom of the page.


1)   What did German engineer Gottlieb Daimler unveil on this day in 1885?


2)   In ancient Greek folklore what was the job of a nymph?

3)   What was the purpose of a fulling mill?



Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,



Simon Cooper

Founder & Managing




Quiz answers:


1)   The world's first motorcycle

2)   They were responsible for the care of the plants and animals of their domain e.g the Potamides looked after rivers and streams.

3)   Fulling is part of the woollen cloth making process and involves cleaning and milling woven cloth to produce a material that is thicker and denser.